On April 13th, the US Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) released [pdf] its annual threat assessment report.
The report reflects the collective insights of the Intelligence Community (IC), which is committed every day to providing the nuanced, independent, and unvarnished intelligence that policymakers, warfighters, and domestic law enforcement personnel need to protect American lives and America’s interests anywhere in the world.
“This assessment focuses on the most direct, serious threats to the United States during the next year. The order of the topics presented in this assessment does not necessarily indicate their relative importance or the magnitude of the threats in the view of the IC. All require a robust intelligence response, including those where a near-term focus may help head off greater threats in the future, such as climate change and environmental degradation.”
There are no big surprises in the report, Beijing, Moscow, Tehran, and Pyongyang have demonstrated the capability and intent to advance their interests at the expense of the United States and its allies, despite the pandemic.
Climate change is an important point, as well as there is an overview of the significant conflicts around the world, or simply instability between key players. This includes Afghanistan, India-Pakistan tensions, the Middle East in general, Asia as a whole, Latin America, and also Africa.
“China increasingly is a near-peer competitor, challenging the United States in multiple arenas—especially economically, militarily, and technologically—and is pushing to change global norms. Russia is pushing back against Washington where it can globally, employing techniques up to and including the use of force. Iran will remain a regional menace with broader malign influence activities, and North Korea will be a disruptive player on the regional and world stages. Major adversaries and competitors are enhancing and exercising their military, cyber, and other capabilities, raising the risks to US and allied forces, weakening our conventional deterrence, and worsening the longstanding threat from weapons of mass destruction.”
For each of the competitor countries, challenging the US interests on a global scale, there is a uniform presentation.
It presents the “Regional and Global Activities”, “Military Capabilities”, “WMD” (Weapons of Mass Destruction), “Cyber”, “Space” and “Intelligence, Influence Operations, and Elections Influence and Interference”.
These are as follows:
China – Beijing is the biggest threat, and the most significant challenge with its ambitions to replace the US as global superpower.
“The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) will continue its whole-of-government efforts to spread China’s influence, undercut that of the United States, drive wedges between Washington and its allies and partners, and foster new international norms that favor the authoritarian Chinese system. Chinese leaders probably will, however, seek tactical opportunities to reduce tensions with Washington when such opportunities suit their interests.”
Beijing sees increasingly competitive US-China relations as part of an epochal geopolitical shift and views Washington’s economic measures against Beijing since 2018 as part of a broader US effort to contain China’s rise.
China seeks to use coordinated, whole-of-government tools to demonstrate its growing strength and compel regional neighbors to acquiesce to Beijing’s preferences, including its claims over disputed territory and assertions of sovereignty over Taiwan.
This here includes behavior in the South China Sea, towards Taiwan as mentioned, with India, and the ever-improving relations with Russia.
China will continue pursuing its goals of becoming a great power, securing what it views as its territory, and establishing its preeminence in regional affairs by building a world-class military, potentially destabilizing international norms and relationships. China’s military commitment includes a multiyear agenda of comprehensive military reform initiatives.
Beijing will continue the most rapid expansion and platform diversification of its nuclear arsenal in its history, intending to at least double the size of its nuclear stockpile during the next decade and to field a nuclear triad. Beijing is not interested in arms control agreements that restrict its modernization plans and will not agree to substantive negotiations that lock in US or Russian nuclear advantages.
Beijing is working to match or exceed US capabilities in space to gain the military, economic, and prestige benefits that Washington has accrued from space leadership
Counterspace operations will be integral to potential military campaigns by the PLA, and China has counterspace weapons capabilities intended to target US and allied satellites.
We assess that China presents a prolific and effective cyber-espionage threat, possesses substantial cyber-attack capabilities, and presents a growing influence threat. China’s cyber pursuits and proliferation of related technologies increase the threats of cyber-attacks against the US homeland, suppression of US web content that Beijing views as threatening to its internal ideological control, and the expansion of technology-driven authoritarianism around the world.
China will continue expanding its global intelligence footprint to better support its growing political, economic, and security interests around the world, increasingly challenging the United States’ alliances and partnerships. Across East Asia and the western Pacific, which Beijing views as its natural sphere of influence, China is attempting to exploit doubts about the US commitment to the region, undermine Taiwan’s democracy, and extend Beijing’s influence.
Russia – despite less-threatening than China currently, and according to the report unwilling to initiate a direct conflict with the US, Moscow is still a key adversary, not too far off from China in terms of threat to US interest.
“Moscow will continue to employ a variety of tactics this year meant to undermine US influence, develop new international norms and partnerships, divide Western countries and weaken Western alliances, and demonstrate Russia’s ability to shape global events as a major player in a new multipolar international order.”
Russia probably will continue to expand its global military, intelligence, security, commercial, and energy footprint and build partnerships with US allies and adversaries alike, most notably Russia’s growing strategic cooperation with China, to achieve its objectives.
“We assess that Moscow will employ an array of tools—especially influence campaigns, intelligence and counterterrorism cooperation, military aid and combined exercises, mercenary operations, assassinations, and arms sales—to advance its interests or undermine the interests of the United States and its allies. We expect Moscow to insert itself into crises when Russian interests are at stake, it can turn a power vacuum into an opportunity, or the anticipated costs of action are low.”
Despite declining defense spending, Russia will emphasize new weapons that present increased threats to the United States and regional actors while continuing its foreign military engagements, conducting training exercises, and incorporating lessons from its involvement in Syria and Ukraine.
The report assesses Russia will remain the largest and most capable WMD rival to the United States for the foreseeable future as it expands and modernizes its nuclear weapons capabilities and increases the capabilities of its strategic and nonstrategic weapons. Russia also remains a nuclear-material security concern, despite improvements to physical security at Russian nuclear sites since the 1990s.
Russia will remain a top cyber threat as it refines and employs its espionage, influence, and attack capabilities.
Russia will remain a key space competitor, maintaining a large network of reconnaissance, communications, and navigation satellites. It will focus on integrating space services—such as communications; positioning, navigation, and timing (PNT); geolocation; and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance—into its weapons and command-and-control systems.
Russia presents one of the most serious intelligence threats to the United States, using its intelligence services and influence tools to try to divide Western alliances, preserve its influence in the post-Soviet area, and increase its sway around the world, while undermining US global standing, sowing discord inside the United States, and influencing US voters and decision-making.
Iran – it presents a continuing threat to US and allied interests in the region as it tries to erode US influence and support Shia populations abroad, entrench its influence and project power in neighboring states, deflect international pressure, and minimize threats to regime stability.
“Although Iran’s deteriorating economy and poor regional reputation present obstacles to its goals, Tehran will try a range of tools—diplomacy, expanding its nuclear program, military sales and acquisitions, and proxy and partner attacks—to advance its goals.”
Risks will reportedly be taken by Tehran to increase tensions and try to gain leverage against US to get concessions on sanctions.
Iran will remain a problematic actor in Iraq, which will be the key battleground for Iran’s influence this year and during the next several years, and Iranian-supported Iraqi Shia militias will continue to pose the primary threat to US personnel in Iraq. The situation is largely the same for Iran’s influence in Syria and Yemen. It notably remains the biggest threat to Israel. It is expected to take more part in Afghanistan, too.
Iran’s diverse military capabilities and its hybrid approach to warfare—using both conventional and unconventional capabilities—will continue to pose a threat to US and allied interests in the region for the foreseeable future.
Iran remains interested in developing networks inside the United States—an objective it has pursued for more than a decade—but the greatest risk to US persons exists outside the Homeland, particularly in the Middle East and South Asia.
If Tehran does not receive sanctions relief, Iranian officials probably will consider options ranging from further enriching uranium up to 60 percent to designing and building a new 40 Megawatt Heavy Water reactor.
“We continue to assess that Iran is not currently undertaking the key nuclear weapons-development activities that we judge would be necessary to produce a nuclear device. However, following the US withdrawal from the JCPOA agreement in May 2018, Iranian officials have abandoned some of Iran’s commitments and resumed some nuclear activities that exceed the JCPOA limits.”
Iran’s expertise and willingness to conduct aggressive cyber operations make it a significant threat to the security of US and allied networks and data. Iran has the ability to conduct attacks on critical infrastructure, as well as to conduct influence and espionage activities.
North Korea – it is not out of the question for Kim Jong Un to undertake a number of aggressive and potentially destabilizing actions to reshape the regional security environment and drive wedges between the United States and its allies—up to and including the resumption of nuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) testing.
North Korea will pose an increasing threat to the United States, South Korea, and Japan as it continues to improve its conventional military capabilities.
North Korea will be a WMD threat for the foreseeable future, because Kim remains strongly committed to the country’s nuclear weapons, the country is actively engaged in ballistic missile research and development, and Pyongyang’s CBW efforts persist.
North Korea’s cyber program poses a growing espionage, theft, and attack threat.