The ultra-violent Islamic State terrorist group is expanding beyond Syria and Iraq and is establishing a foothold in Libya, which is becoming a safe haven for terrorists, the nation’s top military intelligence official told Congress Tuesday.
China, meanwhile, is deploying its aircraft carrier-killing DF-21D missile, and Russia is significantly expanding its strategic nuclear forces with new missiles, Marine Corps Lt. Gen. Vincent Stewart said in testimony to House Armed Services Committee on global threats.
Stewart presented a dire picture of growing threats in Iraq and Afghanistan—where national forces remain unable to defend their countries without foreign assistance, despite billions of U.S. dollars in support and training.
The growing threats posed by China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea are being made more difficult to deal with because of cuts in U.S. defense spending, Stewart said in a prepared statement, noting that recent events, when “taken in aggregate, have created security challenges more diverse and complex than those we have experienced in our lifetimes.”
“Our challenges range from highly capable, near-peer competitors to empowered individuals and the concomitant reduction in our own capacity will make those challenges all the more stressing on our defense and intelligence establishments,” he said.
“This strategic environment will be with us for some time, and the threat’s increasing scope, volatility, and complexity will be the ‘new normal.’”
Said House Armed Services Committee Chairman Rep. Mac Thornberry (R., Texas): “I have certainly been struck by the consensus of opinion from our most respected and practiced statesmen that our country faces a strategic environment today more complex, more diverse and in many ways more dangerous than we’ve ever faced before.”
Stewart, who was recently installed as Defense Intelligence Agency director, made the comments in a prepared threat briefing statement along with Mark Chandler, acting Joint Staff director for intelligence and Army Lt. Gen. William Mayville, Joint Staff director for operations.
Topping the list of U.S. security challenges are Iraq and Afghanistan.
The success of the al Qaeda offshoot, the Islamic State (also known as ISIS or ISIL), in seizing territory and foreign military equipment in Iraq gave the Islamist terror group new power to attract militants, both regionally and from the West.
The Islamic State is spreading throughout the Middle East and North Africa, where it is setting up affiliates to rival the traditional al Qaeda terrorist group that also remains capable of conducting attacks, including airline bombings, the DIA chief said.
“Particularly concerning has been the spread of ISIL beyond Syria and Iraq,” Stewart said. “With affiliates in Algeria, Egypt, Libya, the group is beginning to assemble a growing international footprint that includes ungoverned and under governed areas.”
Foreign fighters from the West, many aligned with the Islamic State, continue to flow into and out of Syria and Iraq, which is a worry and the problem is growing, he said.
“In 2015, we expect ISIL to continue its outreach to other elements of the global extremist movement, and to continue benefitting from a robust foreign terrorist fighter flow,” Stewart said.
Stewart said allied airstrikes against IS killed “a number” of its leaders and frustrated the group’s ability to operate openly in Iraq and Syria.
However, the three-star general warned that “we expect ISIL to continue entrenching itself and consolidating gains in Sunni areas of Iraq and Syria while also fighting for territory outside those areas.”
Limited offensive military operations, such as recent attacks in Syria and Iraq’s Anbar province and holding territory in Shiite and Kurdish region will be difficult for the group, he said.
Terrorist attacks using suicide and car bomb attacks and assassinations will continue, he added.
“Terrorist attacks in Baghdad have been nearly a daily occurrence this past year, and the rate is unlikely to significantly change in 2015,” Stewart said.
Stewart described the political instability and militia violence in Libya as getting worse over the past year, making the oil-rich North African state an attractive terrorist safe haven.
“ISIL has increased its presence and influence in Libya, particularly in Darnah, where it has begun establishing Islamic institutions,” Stewart said, adding that stability will get worse unless a unified government and capability military is established.
On Pakistan, Stewart said Islamabad continues to face threats from militant groups and the government there is worried about the expansion of IS “outreach and propaganda” in South Asia.
Pakistan is continuing to build up its nuclear arsenal and “we anticipate that Pakistan will continue development of new delivery systems, including cruise missiles and close-range ‘battlefield’ nuclear weapons to augment its existing ballistic missiles,” Stewart testified.
Iraqi security forces have suffered setbacks, including the collapse of multiple divisions, which highlight major deficiencies in the nation’s armed forces.
“The [Iraqi Security Force] remains unable to defend against external threats or sustain conventional military operations against internal challenges without foreign assistance,” he said.
In Afghanistan, the U.S.-trained and equipped Afghan national security forces also are “stalemated” in the insurgency against the Taliban the Islamist terror group will “likely seek to exploit the reduced coalition presence by pressuring [Afghan National Security Force] units in rural areas, conducting high profile attacks in major population centers, and expanding their safe havens,” Stewart said.
A new threat outlined by the DIA director is the threat posed by anti-satellite warfare capabilities of both China and Russia.
“Chinese and Russian military leaders understand the unique information advantages afforded by space systems and are developing capabilities to deny U.S. use of space in the event of a conflict,” he said.
China’s military has said it plans to “interfere with, damage, and destroy reconnaissance, navigation, and communication satellites” in a conflict, and Beijing has satellite jammers and other anti-satellite systems.
“Russia’s military doctrine emphasizes space defense as a vital component of its national defense,” he added. “Russian leaders openly assert that the Russian armed forces have antisatellite weapons and conduct antisatellite research.”
On terrorism, Stewart said al Qaeda has been fractured by U.S. and allied counterterrorism operations but remains deadly and capable of conducting long-range attacks through its core organization in Pakistan and affiliates in Yemen, Somalia, North Africa, Syria, and South Asia.
The Yemen-based al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula “remains committed to attacking the West, probably by targeting commercial aviation with innovative explosives,” he noted.
Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps–Qods Force (IRGC-QF) and Lebanese Hezbollah also are the terrorist threats used by Tehran to project power in the Middle East, including the training and arming of pro-Syrian regime militants.
Russia continues to significantly modernize its nuclear and conventional military forces and has adopted a hybrid strategy of using conventional military power and information warfare, including cyber warfare, in Moscow’s efforts to destabilize and take additional territory in Ukraine, Stewart said.
“We anticipate continued high levels of Russian military activity in 2015,” Stewart said.
Moscow also conducted record numbers of foreign area military air and naval operations and is expected to increase such activities in the Caribbean and Mediterranean Seas, he said.
Russia’s highest priority remains building up nuclear forces.
“Priorities for the strategic nuclear forces include the modernization of its road-mobile intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and upgrades to strategic forces’ command and control facilities,” Stewart said. “In the next year, Russia will field more road-mobile SS-27 Mod-2 ICBMs with multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles.
Other new missile development includes the road-mobile RS-26 missile, the Dolgorukiy ballistic missile submarine and its SS-N-32 Bulava submarine-launched ballistic missile, along with advanced air- and ground-launched cruise missiles.
China’s military buildup is designed to defend Beijing’s “core interests,” which are being expanded throughout the Asia Pacific, raising the potential for a regional conflict, the DIA chief said.
“The South China Sea (SCS) remains a potential flashpoint,” he said. “Overlapping claims among China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Taiwan, and Brunei, exacerbated by large-scale construction or major steps to militarize or expand law enforcement has increased tensions among SCS claimants, and has prompted an increase in defense acquisition to include submarine capabilities in some of these countries.”
China is also expected to conduct first ballistic missile submarine patrols this year, Stewart said.
U.S. intelligence officials said last year that China would conduct its first missile submarine patrols but Stewart’s comments Tuesday indicate they were wrong.
Stewart also called China’s air force modernization “unprecedented,” noting the development of two stealth jets, the J-31 and J-20, with further testing and development expected this year.
China also is expanding its arsenal of nuclear missiles, including its 50 to 60 ICBMs.
“China is adding more survivable road-mobile systems, enhancing its silo-based systems, and developing a sea-based nuclear deterrent,” he said.
China’s missile buildup in locations that could threaten Taiwan also is continuing, with more than 1,200 short-range missiles in place.
“China continues to deploy growing numbers of the DF-21D antiship ballistic missile and is developing a tiered ballistic missile defense system, having successfully tested the upper-tier capability on two occasions,” he said.
The DF-21D is a serious threat to U.S. aircraft carriers because it can sink those ships hundreds of missiles from China’s coasts.
On North Korea, Stewart warned that the regime in Pyongyang may be set for a fourth underground nuclear test.
Earlier North Korean nuclear tests were carried out in 2006, 2009, and 2013. The regime announced it would conduct another nuclear test in response to a critical United Nations report on the regime’s massive human rights abuses.
“We believe [North Korea] continues to develop its nuclear weapons and missile programs which pose a serious threat to the U.S. and regional allies,” he said. “We remain concerned that the DPRK will conduct a nuclear test in the future.”
North Korea also is building up missile forces and is seeking long-range ballistic missiles “capable of delivering nuclear weapons to the United States,” he said.
The new road-mobile KN-08 ICBM is nearing “operational capability,” he added.
On Iran, Stewart warned that Tehran is continuing to develop nuclear weapons capabilities and could soon test a space launch vehicle that could double as a long-range missile.
“We continue to assess that Iran’s goal is to develop capabilities that would allow it to build missile-deliverable nuclear weapons, should a decision be made to do so,” he said. “The regime faces no insurmountable technical barriers to producing a nuclear weapon, making Iran’s political will the central issue.”
Additionally, Tehran is building numerous underground facilities for its military forces, he said.
“Iran also is steadily improving its military capabilities,” Stewart said.
On the Syrian conflict, Stewart said the civil war is “trending in the Assad regime’s favor.
“The regime holds the military advantage in Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, and we anticipate that in 2015 the regime’s strategy will be to encircle Aleppo, cut opposition supply lines, and besiege the opposition,” he said.
Cyber attacks against government networks also are expected to continue this year, Stewart said.
Additionally, Stewart said during questioning that he has “significant concerns” about releasing any of the remaining prisoners now held at the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. He said DIA was not consulted on the release of five Taliban detainees that were exchanged for Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl. “I wanted to make sure I had that on the record,” he said.
The White House appears to be gradually releasing the Guantanamo terrorists as part of the president’s plan to close the facility.