The Maskirovka Slips V: The Counter-Threat


NBC News is reporting out that the US Government has taken steps to prepare to counter-strike a Russian cyber attack on election day next week.

U.S. military hackers have penetrated Russia’s electric grid, telecommunications networks and the Kremlin’s command systems, making them vulnerable to attack by secret American cyber weapons should the U.S. deem it necessary, according to a senior intelligence official and top-secret documents reviewed by NBC News.

American officials have long said publicly that Russia, China and other nations have probed and left hidden malware on parts of U.S critical infrastructure, “preparing the battlefield,” in military parlance, for cyber attacks that could turn out the lights or turn off the internet across major cities.

It’s been widely assumed that the U.S. has done the same thing to its adversaries. The documents reviewed by NBC News — along with remarks by a senior U.S. intelligence official — confirm that, in the case of Russia.

U.S. officials continue to express concern that Russia will use its cyber capabilities to try to disrupt next week’s presidential election. U.S. intelligence officials do not expect Russia to attack critical infrastructure — which many believe would be an act of war — but they do anticipate so-called cyber mischief, including the possible release of fake documents and the proliferation of bogus social media accounts designed to spread misinformation.


Brown and others have noted that the Obama administration has been extremely reluctant to take action in cyberspace, even in the face of what it says is a series of Russian hacks and leaks designed to manipulate the U.S. presidential election.

Administration officials did, however, deliver a back channel warning to Russian against any attempt to influence next week’s vote, officials told NBC News.

The senior U.S. intelligence official said that, if Russia initiated a significant cyber attack against critical infrastructure, the U.S. could take action to shut down some Russian systems — a sort of active defense.

Retired Adm. James Stavridis, who served as NATO commander of Europe, told NBC News’ Cynthia McFadden that the U.S. is well equipped to respond to any cyber attack.

“I think there’s three things we should do if we see a significant cyber-attack,” he said. “The first obviously is defending against it. The second is reveal: We should be publicizing what has happened so that any of this kind of cyber trickery can be unmasked. And thirdly, we should respond. Our response should be proportional.”


One problem, officials say, is that the doctrine around cyber conflict — what is espionage, what is theft, what is war — is not well developed.

“Cyber war is undefined,” Brown said. “There are norms of behavior that we try to encourage, but people violate those.”

For further reading if anyone is interested, here’s the link to Joint Publication (JP) 3-12(R)/Cyberspace Operations. JP 3-12 covers all the Joint Force doctrines and concepts for cyberspace operations. Here’s the link to the US Army Cyber Center of Excellence (COE)* doctrine and concepts brief for those that like death by powerpoint. Finally, here’s the link to a very interesting monograph on cyberspace operations published by the US Army War College’s Strategic Studies Institute (full disclosure: I know the author, he was on the faculty of USAWC during the first two years of my assignment there).

* The Army uses Center of Excellence for the overarching Branch commands at their Professional Military Education (PME) schools. These are not traditional, civilian academic Title VI Centers of Excellence.


The Syrian Civil War and No Fly Zones

Secretary Clinton has stated several times that she would consider, if elected President, a no fly zone (NFZ) over Syria and has implied this would be part of a humanitarian assistance strategy to bring relief to the citizens of Aleppo. At the last two debates she specifically referenced Omar Daqneesh, the shell shocked 5 year old Syrian boy filmed sitting in the back in an ambulance in August as a reason to not allow the status quo of Russian and Syrian air strikes on civilian population areas to go on. This has not always been Clinton’s position, in 2013 she expressed concern that a no fly zone would kill a lot of Syrians. Secretary Clinton’s change in position, or at least a stated willingness to change her position, has not been met with universal acclaim. Many Democrats, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and others have expressed concerns that a no fly zone would not save lives. Others have argued that it could start World War III featuring the US vs Russia.

Since this has now been put forward as a possible change in US policy and strategy it is important to take a few minutes and consider exactly what a no fly zone really is, how such a choice fits within the US’s strategy formulation framework, and whether it is feasible, acceptable, and suitable.

In terms of US military concepts and doctrine the phrase “no fly zone” is not a doctrinal term. The closest doctrinal term is no fly area (NOFLY) and is defined in Joint Publication (JP) 3-52/Joint Airspace Control as:

Airspace of specific dimensions set aside for a specific purpose in which no aircraft operations are permitted, except as authorized by the appropriate commander and controlling agency.

Mueller defines no fly zones in Denying Flight as:

…a no-fly zone can be defined as a policy under which an outside actor overtly prohibits some or all aircraft flight over a specified territory and undertakes to intercept aircraft violating the prohibition or otherwise punish those responsible for violations.3 Several features of this definition are worth noting. First, an NFZ thus defined does not include defending the sovereignty of one’s own airspace or that of an allied state with the ally’s consent. In a sense, it can be said that virtually every country has an NFZ of some sort over its own territory, often prohibiting all flights in particularly sensitive airspace, but these are not of interest here. Second, an NFZ is a declaratory policy under which one expects violators to be aware of the line they are crossing. Third, imposing an NFZ worthy of the name entails enforcing it, not merely complaining about those who violate it; normally, this means intercepting aircraft that defy the ban, though an NFZ could also employ an enforcement mechanism that relies on other, less-direct forms of sanction.4

He posits that no fly zones are often attractive policy options because:

Since the end of the Cold War, “no-fly zones” (NFZs)1 have begun to appear on menus of policy options for dealing with troublesome states. Prohibiting a miscreant government from using airpower for warfare or transportation within its own country may appeal to policymakers, primarily because it is perhaps the most limited way that military force can be used as a punitive tool. Compared to other forms of armed intervention, NFZs typically entail relatively little risk to the powers imposing them, as least when directed against militarily weak targets. Yet, because they are an active use of military power, NFZs tend to seem more assertive than policy instruments such as economic sanctions.

Due to their limited nature, no-fly zones may also be relatively easy policy initiatives for international coalitions to agree on when they are keen to act against a target regime but wary of taking large risks or committing themselves to major military action. This was very much the case in early 2011, following uprisings against Libyan dictator Colonel Muammar Qaddafi and the Libyan government’s subsequent crackdown against its internal opponents. With a rising sense that the international community needed to do something to help the rebels, first the Gulf Cooperation Council, then the Arab League, and finally the United Nations voted to support the imposition of a NFZ over Libya, from which grew the 2011 air campaign against Qaddafi that enabled the Libyan opposition to defeat his regime and remove him from power (Operation Odyssey Dawn [OOD] and Operation Unified Protector [OUP]).

While this doctrinal and definitional discussion is interesting, the seeming reason behind Secretary Clinton’s willingness to revisit adjusting US policy to include a no fly zone is the result of humanitarian concerns. One of the reasons for this seems to be the failure of the recent cease-fire, which even when it was in effect, failed to allow for humanitarian assistance to reach the people of Aleppo. Its failure also seems to have taken the wind out of the sails (if I may mix my Service metaphors) of the announced US-Russian Joint Deconfliction Office to coordinate strikes and deconflict operations against ISIL and the Nusra Front in Syria. Part of the consideration, viewed solely through public statements and the news reporting on her changed position, is that diplomacy, including MIL to MIL (military to military) diplomacy has failed to end air strikes on non combatant civilian populations in Syria, specifically Aleppo, and as a result a greater humanitarian disaster has ensued. As a result the most effective way to break the impasse, prevent air strikes on civilian population centers, and get much needed humanitarian assistance to those civilian populations is to have the US led coalition deny flight to the Russians and the Syrians.

Read more

The Battle to Liberate Mosul Has Begun. Updated: And Dabiq Has Been Liberated Too!

Here’s the link to the strike press releases by Combined Joint Task Force Operation Inherent Resolve.

There will be more to come on this in the coming days. In the meantime here’s a link to the CJTF Spokesman doing a briefing – he’s one of my former students and an excellent Public Affairs Officer. Three other former students of mine are also with him at CJTF OIR.

Updated at 11:05 PM EDT

I missed it, but Secretary of Defense Carter issued another, very important press release today as well:

Statement by Secretary of Defense Ash Carter on the Liberation of Dabiq‎

Release No: 16-110 Oct. 16, 2016

Release No: NR-369-16
Oct. 16, 2016

I welcome today’s news that Syrian opposition forces liberated the Syrian town of Dabiq from ISIL control, aided by strong support from our ally Turkey and our international coalition. This is more than just the latest military result against this barbaric group. Dabiq held symbolic importance to ISIL. The group carried out unspeakable atrocities in Dabiq, named its English-language magazine after the town and claimed it would be the site of a final victory for the so-called caliphate. Instead its liberation gives the campaign to deliver ISIL a lasting defeat new momentum in Syria. Again I want to congratulate the Syrians who fought to free Dabiq and thank our ally Turkey for the close coordination during this operation.

 This is a very, very important bit of news. The town of Dabiq, Syria is central to ISIL’s apocalyptic theology. As I wrote about back in FEB 2015, ISIL believes that the defining battle of their version of Islam’s armageddon will be fought between the Muwaheedun (adherents to the radical unity of the Deity) and the infidel. By denying Dabiq/access to Dabiq to ISIL a blow has been struck directly to the heart of the raison d’être of ISIL’s theology and doctrine! The Information Operations and PSYOPS significance of this achievement is very, very important in the Syrian side of the fight against ISIL.

A Note On Tom’s Post: The Strategering of Mosul

I want to just add a strategic note to Tom’ post from earlier today. There are actually several very good strategic reasons to publicize the upcoming Mosul campaign even as the official start day is not announced. The first is to actually use the Information(al) element of National Power to pressure ISIL to abandon Mosul rather than suffer the types of battlefield defeat that it did in Ramadi and Fallujah in Iraq and in parts of Syria where the US led Coalition is attriting ISIL’s hold on actual territory. One of the first positive effects we’re trying to achieve is to get a team of engineers, under Coalition protection, on site to shore up at the Mosul Dam full time before the rainy season starts as we move into Autumn. The sooner, and the easier it is to get the engineers on site full time the better. If the Mosul Dam goes, there is going to be a tremendous complication added to the Coalition’s efforts in the region in terms of having to conduct humanitarian assistance and disaster management coupled with an increased flow of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) within Iraq and the impact on Iraqi agriculture, which is still not back to what it was prior to the 2003 invasion. This will be much easier if we don’t have to fight our way to the dam or if we don’t have to worry about ISIL blowing the damn to cover their retreat and complicate Coalition operations.

The second reason to use the publicity about an impending attack, to leverage Information Power, to achieve the theater strategic objective is to ramp up the PSYOPS component of the potential attack. ISIL’s leadership is not stupid – they know an attack is coming to dig them out of Mosul. As a result they have to get their fighters on site in position and ready to fight. Sitting, day in and day out, waiting for an attack to come that doesn’t occur that day, even when everyone knows that the attack is, eventually, going to happen, saps morale. You can only keep troops mentally focused for an upcoming fight for a limited amount of time before they start to loose their focus. Every day that we make clear that the fight is going to come, that the force applied will be overwhelming for the ISIL fighters trying to hold the city, and nothing happens that day, is a day that ISIL’s fighters have spent mental focus waiting for an attack that will, but has not yet, come.

It is also important to leverage this psychological pressure created by knowing the fight is coming, but not when, to try to avoid what has happened in the campaigns to liberate Fallujah and Ramadi: ISIL’s almost complete destruction of these cities, the creation of tens of thousands of new IDPs and refugees, and the humanitarian crises that result. There wasn’t a lot left of Ramadi after its liberation as one of the Iraqi Special Forces officers stated after ISIL had been pushed out:

“All they leave is rubble,” pronounced Maj. Mohammed Hussein, whose counterterrorism corps was one of a initial to pierce into Ramadi. “You can’t do anything with rubble.”

As a result of what we’ve learned from the campaigns to liberate Fallujah and Ramadi, the less actual fighting that has to take place to retake Mosul the better it will be for the city and its residents. So anything we can do to make it harder for ISIL to actually fight works to our advantage.

There are also two very important reasons rooted within Iraq’s socio-cultural context. The first is that by making it clear that Coalition backed and supported Iraqi regular and irregular forces are going to bring overwhelming force to liberate Mosul, we are also leveraging Information Power to keep our Iraqi allies focused on their upcoming task. A repeated problem that was encountered by US and Coalition Forces going back to 2004 was that it was often hard to get the Iraqis to show up, and if they did show up to actually fight. There were several reasons for this. For instance, in Anbar Province in 2005-2006 we had lined up Sunni tribal fighters to be trained to fight with Coalition Forces against al Qaeda in Iraq. However, there was a logistical delay getting these local forces to the training site. During that delay their villages had been hit by al Qaeda in Iraq and as a result our potential new local allies decided they had to go home and protect their kin. As a result we lost an opportunity to build a more cohesive, local irregular force to work with throughout the region.

At other times we’ve spent a lot of time and money working with and training Iraqi Security Forces who, while they did fine in practice, would balk when the time came for them to apply force for real. I watched this personally one week in 2008 when I was working with my brigade’s Military Training Team (MiTT). Reports came in the night we arrived to embed with the MiTT of an attack on some Iraqis. The MiTT leader tried to get the Iraqi Army battalion commander he was working with to respond, but he wouldn’t. The next morning, however, we quickly had to gear up and get on the road to follow this Iraqi Army battalion as they rushed from their base to the middle of nowhere to see what had happened – 14 hours after the attack was reported. What you’re seeing in the US led Coalition’s publicizing the upcoming campaign to liberate Mosul is an attempt to use the other edge of Information Power to keep our Iraqi allies focused and ensure that when the day comes to begin that offensive they are ready and able to do so. I can not emphasize enough the damage that Saddam Hussein’s tyrannical government did to Iraqi confidence in their ability to accomplish things as Iraqis, especially military operations. A great deal of our partnering, advising, training, and assisting has been not just teaching the how of soldiering or policing, but also the less tangible and harder to inculcate why to do so – including building morale and esprit de corps.

Finally, the last reason to publicize the upcoming campaign to liberate Mosul is related to the need to keep the Iraqi Security Forces and irregular forces on actually going through with the campaign. As you can see in the map images below, Mosul is very close to the areas that are currently part of the autonomous areas of Iraqi Kurdistan (the Kurdish Autonomous Area). And Mosul is an ethnically mixed city – it has both Sunni Arabs and (Sunni) Kurds living together in proximity. If you look at Map 1, you can see where the Iraqi Kurds were able to extend their lines by the end of 2013/beginning of 2014.


(Map 1: Areas Under Kurdish Control 2013)

As you can see in Map 1, by the late Winter of 2014 the Iraqi Kurds had extended their lines beyond Iraqi Kurdistan to the areas of Iraq that the Iraqi Kurds have claimed, and want added to Iraqi Kurdistan. Most important among these is the city and province of Kirkuk, but Mosul is also historically important for the Iraqi Kurds. Map 2, below, shows the distribution of Iraqi Kurds as an ethnic group in Northeastern Iraq and the boundaries of Iraqi Kurdistan.


(Map 2: Ethnic-Religious Map of Iraq)

Mosul and Tikrit are contested areas between Iraq’s Arabs and Kurds. In 2008 I was told repeatedly by both Sunni and Shi’a tribal and religious leaders (sheikhs and imams) across Central Iraq that the one thing that would definitely make Iraq’s Sunni and Shi’a Arabs cooperate was if the Iraqi Kurds took Kirkuk. Now this was in the 2008 context as opposed to the 2013-2014 context of the Iraqi Peshmerga fighting against ISIL and establishing their forward lines at the farthest points out from Iraqi Kurdistan that they could hold territory against ISIL. However, the Government of Iraq is dominated by Arabs not Kurds. As are the Iraqi Security Forces, though a significant portion of the Iraqi Army is made up of Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga. So here too we are trying to leverage Information Power to keep the pressure on the Government of Iraq and the Iraqi Security Forces to go and liberate a city that is ethnically mixed and that is contested between Iraqi Arabs and Kurds. The intention here is to ensure that Iraqi Arab regular and irregular forces show up and fight to liberate a city that may wind up under Kurdish control in the future. This is not necessarily an easy task, so leveraging Information Power to ensure the campaign actually happens is important.

It is this strategic nuance of National Power (Diplomatic, Information, Military, and Economic/the DIME), and how to leverage it that neither Donald Trump nor his advisors seem to understand. Moreover, it demonstrates a lack of understand of the theater strategic contexts in which US and Coalition Forces are working in Iraq. We already have a real world/real time example of what happens when the strategic regional context is not taken into before a major operation is undertaken in the Levant: the 2003 US invasion of Iraq. While the element of surprise may be tactically important, the strategic ability to leverage Information Power to one’s advantage is also a very important tool that should be used whenever possible.

Late Night Sideshow Open Thread: Colin Powell, Latest Victim of the ‘Trump Touch’

Gormless Midwestern bigot-politicians, anti-immigrant immigrant spokespersons, Mexican finance ministers — nobody who gets close to Donald Trump comes away without reputational damage. It’s like the Midas Touch, but in reverse!

Colin Powell has become another victim of the Trump Touch. Ever since garnering favorable attention from the Right People for his strong defense of William Calley, Gen. Powell has made a nice second career working the “We’re not racist, we just gave this reassuringly deep-voiced Black guy a six-figure sum to speak nicely to us” circuit. Not even his “aluminum tubes” stint shilling for Dubya’s Excellent Iraq Adventure could ding his reputation… maybe a few DFHs complained, but phhtb, hippies. Powell even made friends with Hillary Clinton, as they crossed paths while she was doing her own “We’re not vampire squids, we just gave this Democrat lady a six-figure sum” memoirs & speaking tours, and was kind enough to give her some advice about keeping her emails private.

But then Donald Effing Trump decided to get off the running-for-president pot, the Russian apparatchiks got busy in his support, and next thing you know, “Leaked Emails Reveal That Colin Powell, A 79-Year-Old Black Man, Acts Exactly Like Every 79-Year-Old Black Man*. Very funny, VSB! Now Colin Powell is just another joke-target on the internets!

The Washington Post reports:

Donald Trump is “a national disgrace and an international pariah” who gave voice to a “racist” movement to question President Obama’s citizenship, former secretary of state Colin L. Powell tapped on his keyboard.

Hillary Clinton, he typed in an email to another friend, is a “greedy, not transformational” figure who messes up everything she touches because of her “hubris” and has a husband still, well, entertaining “bimbos” while she is away.

Former vice president Richard B. Cheney and his daughter are “idiots” flacking their new book, and the Iraq War was mishandled from the get-go by the Defense Department’s top officials.

Other than that, the retired general and statesman wrote in one exchange, “alls well with the Powells.”
Read more

Trump is a Goddamned moron, and has no honor.

But you already knew that.
Here’s where it matters.

Read more

Thursday Morning Open Thread: Objectively Pro-HRClinton

This ad came out before last night’s Matt Lauer Trump-orgy. I assume it’s in heavy media rotation in the states where it will do the most good, but hey — those of you on Facebook / Twitter / SnapPeriwhatever, remember: Sharing Is Caring!

Speaking of the #CICForumDebacle...

Priebus is (deservedly) taking a lot of social-media stick for this, but so far my personal favorite:

Apart from endless relitigation, what’s on the agenda for the day?