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An 'uncomfortable reality' revealed in Ukraine
Plus Chinese spies, explosives at Nord Stream, and prisoner swaps.
This will be a Rundown-only dispatch with news on a jailed Chinese spy, more gear going to Ukraine, potential Russian prison swaps, and more. I’m traveling this week but will be back on a regular schedule in December. Until then, there’s a lot of national security news to catch you up on. Let’s go…
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Gen. Erik Kurilla, commander of U.S. Central Command, recently shared details of a Nov. 8 operation to seize a stateless dhow in the Gulf of Oman. The boat was apparently picked up by “networked sensors” of surface drones, buoys, and other probes that detect illegal activity.
“The team in the operations center received an immediate signal. So did the drones,” Kurilla said. “And, without any orders and without the team in the operations center even pushing a button, the closest drone took pictures.”
A patrol craft arrived in 30 minutes to encircle the four-man crew. It took another five days for sailors and Coast Guardsmen to unload what was packed in the cargo hold: A massive haul of explosive material believed to have been sent from Iran to Houthi rebels—Tehran’s proxy force against regional rival Saudi Arabia.
"This was … enough to fuel more than a dozen medium-range ballistic missiles depending on the size," said Vice Adm. Brad Cooper, 5th Fleet commander.
Xu Yanjun, 42, a deputy division director of China’s Ministry of State Security, used “aliases, front companies, and universities to deceive aviation employees and solicit information,” such as aircraft design secrets from GE Aviation.
“The Chinese government tasked an officer of its spy service to steal U.S. trade secrets so it could advance its own commercial and military aviation efforts, at the expense of an American company,” said FBI Director Chris Wray. “As long as the Chinese government continues to break our laws and threaten American industry and institutions, the FBI will work with its partners across the globe to bring those responsible to justice.”
Xu also facilitated Beijing’s hacking of a French aerospace company and served as a handler for a spy inside the U.S. Army.
I detailed that specific case in The Ruck dispatch linked above; I also recommend this fascinating article by Bloomberg on Xu and how he was ultimately caught. The huge amount of evidence the FBI discovered on his iCloud account is a gold mine of Chinese spying insight.
Taiwan prosecutors charged Army Col. Hsiang Te-en with corruption and accused him of signing a “pledge of surrender” to China in a potential war in the Taiwan Strait.
Hsiang, the head of Taiwan’s Army Infantry Training Command’s Operations Research and Development Division, was paid about $20,000 and filmed a video in his military uniform in which he said he would “serve the motherland” to usher in “peaceful reunification as early as possible,” according to the indictment.
Speaking of Taiwan, the United States "adopting 'strategic clarity' is more likely to provoke than to deter a PRC attack on Taiwan,” says Bonnie Glaser.
Swedish investigators say they found “explosive residue” at the site of the damaged Nord Stream pipeline in the Baltic Sea. The pipeline supplying Russian gas to Europe suffered several leaks after underwater explosions were detected by seismologists on Sept. 26. I think we can now drop the hedging of “sabotage seems certain.”
So, who did it? Three nations are investigating that question right now. Two of those countries, Denmark and Sweden, say that “several hundred kilograms” of explosives were used, but attribution remains murky. Russia is the primary suspect.
Big ticket items include additional munitions for Kyiv’s recently-acquired National Advanced Surface-to-Air Missile Systems that protect the skies from drones and missiles, along with High Mobility Artillery Rockets, precision-guided artillery, and hundreds of trucks.
There’s also this interesting bit: “150 heavy machine guns with thermal imagery sights to counter Unmanned Aerial Systems.”
In other words, “it’s costing peanuts for the US to defeat Russia,” notes Timothy Ash in a cost-benefit analysis published at the Center for European Analysis.
“The assistance represents 5.6% of total US defense spending. But Russia is a primary adversary of the US, a top-tier rival not too far behind China, its number one strategic challenger,” Ash writes. “In cold, geopolitical terms, this war provides a prime opportunity for the US to erode and degrade Russia’s conventional defense capability, with no boots on the ground and little risk to US lives.”
“…on so many levels, continued US support for Ukraine is a no-brainer from a bang for buck perspective. Ukraine is no Vietnam or Afghanistan for the US, but it is exactly that for Russia. A Russia continually mired in a war it cannot win is a huge strategic win for the US.”
That operational success has revealed an “uncomfortable reality,” according to the National Defense Industrial Association: “significantly depleted” U.S. defense stockpiles.
“According to the Defense Department, in the six months from March to September, the United States supplied Ukraine with more than 800,000 155mm artillery rounds. From Sept. 28 to Oct. 28, it donated another 100,000 rounds. The September production capacity, meanwhile, was only 14,400 rounds per month. While the exact number of 155mm artillery rounds the United States possesses is unknown, this gap between utilization and production will significantly deplete its reserves over time.”
“The U.S. defense industrial base is operating in a distinctly different environment than it was five years ago — great power competition is again paramount, and there is an unexpected need to replenish U.S. military stockpiles.”
Meanwhile, Russia is warming to a prisoner swap with the United States: Moscow wants back a man nicknamed the “Merchant of Death”—Viktor Bout, a Russian arms dealer—in exchange for Americans Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan.
Two-for-one is a reasonable trade. But it still stinks to free a man who made millions by selling weapons to very bad people. It wouldn’t be the first time. Here are some other prisoner swaps that freed Americans.
Warming does not mean happening. At least not yet. “Russia and the United States have discussed swapping Griner and Whelan, a former U.S. Marine, for Bout, but no deal has materialized amid heightened tensions over Russia's invasion of Ukraine,” Reuters reported.
Over the weekend, protests erupted across China to oppose the government’s unpopular “zero-Covid” policy. Hundreds of people gathered in Beijing, Shanghai, Wuhan, and various other cities to demand the policy be loosened, shouting slogans like “say no to covid tests, yes to food. No to lockdowns, yes to freedom.”
The context from China expert Bill Bishop in: “China has hundreds protests every day around the country, but some of the protests over the last few days have been remarkable for their size, messaging, and geographic and demographic distribution. Perhaps most worrying for the leadership and the security services, for whom ‘political security’ is task number one, are the gatherings at many universities around the country, given the long history of student movements in modern China.”
According to Foreign Policy: “Police initially seemed uncertain about how to handle the protests, but they quickly pivoted to breaking up crowds and carrying out widespread arrests. The approach still varies from city to city. As of early Monday night in China, these suppression measures seemed to seriously reduce the protests.”
And finally, the Pentagon published its “China Military Power Report” on Tuesday, detailing security and military developments from Beijing. The “authoritative assessment” from the Department of Defense digs into China’s strategy, military forces and capabilities, and technology.
I’ll probably have more from that report once I have time to dig into it. But please let me know via email if something in there catches your attention: email@example.com.
As always, thanks for reading and supporting The Ruck. See you next week!