DNI: Cyber Is The Common Weapon Among Top Adversaries

China aims to displace the U.S. as the world’s pre-eminent superpower; Russia is “pushing back” against the U.S., sometimes with force; Iran is a “regional menace” and North Korea is a “disruptive player,” and will be for years to come, Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines said in the U.S. intelligence community’s annual assessment of top threats facing the U.S.

Released April 9 amid Chinese saber-rattling against Taiwan and as Russian troops massed on the border with Ukraine, the 31-page unclassified threat assessment calls China the “pacing threat” for the U.S.—militarily, politically, and economically—noting that the other three nations remain active, potent adversaries, particularly in cyber warfare.

President Joe Biden on April 15 announced new sanctions on Russia stemming from the Solar Winds hack and Russia’s interference in the 2020 U.S. election. The sanctions target 32 individuals and organizations, and Biden also expelled 10 Russian diplomats. Biden called the move “proportionate,” saying his intent is not to “kick off a cycle of escalation and conflict with Russia.” The Solar Winds attack gave cyber criminals access to more than 18,000 computer networks, both government and private. Biden said Russia needs to be held to account for attempting to “undermine the conduct of free and fair democratic elections” in the U.S. and other Western nations.

Moscow said it would come up with “a decisive response.”

China is a different story. The DNI said the Chinese use coercive foreign loans and “vaccine diplomacy,” along with expansive territorial claims, to compete vigorously with the U.S. for world influence. Beijing sees an “epochal shift” as China rises in economic and military power, ultimately surpassing the U.S. China views anti-Chinese economic measures by Washington as a desperate effort to “contain China’s rise,” the DNI said. China touts its own containment of COVID-19 as “evidence of the superiority of its system,” and is laboring to sew up regional hegemony, securing “what it views as its territory and regional pre-eminence.”

Chinese combat air packages—fighters, bombers and airborne warning and control aircraft—have made nearly two dozen unannounced incursions into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone in recent weeks, and the DNI report called this a stepped-up pattern of Chinese efforts to intimidate and re-unify with Taiwan.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken said April 11 on NBC’s “Meet the Press” that the U.S. will continue to help Taiwan “defend itself,” and that “it would be a serious mistake for anyone to try to change the existing status quo by force.” China views Taiwan as sovereign territory, and continues to remind the U.S. of its agreement to the “one China” principle. China says further warming of military ties between Washington and Taipei are provocative and “belligerent.”

“Friction will grow as Beijing steps up attempts to portray Taipei as internationally isolated and dependent on the mainland for economic prosperity, and as China continues to increase military activity around the island,” according to the report. Beijing, the intelligence community asserts, is “intensifying efforts to shape the political environment in the United States to promote its policy preferences, mold public discourse, pressure political figures whom Beijing believes oppose its interests, and muffle criticism of China.” It adds that China wants to sow doubt about U.S. commitments to the Indo-Pacific region.

China continues to intimidate its “rival claimants” for control of the South China Sea, using air, naval, and maritime law enforcement to demonstrate its “effective control over contested areas,” the DNI said. Likewise, China seeks to intimidate Japan over contested areas in the East China Sea, and India on the China-India border. Tensions there remain high following the first “lethal border clash between the two countries since 1975,” the report said, but both countries have begun pulling back troops and equipment from the border in a sign of easing tension.

To assert itself globally, China is busily acquiring military basing rights in South America and the Caribbean, offering loans and other incentives that intel officials consider “coercive.” Securing access to energy sources is also part of China’s strategy. Politically, China advocates “new international norms for technology and human rights, emphasizing state sovereignty and political stability over individual rights.”

Intellectual property continues to be a sensitive and frustrating area of concern, the DNI said. China continues to steal technology that it can’t develop on its own, using cyber espionage and, more subtly, by building ties with international and academic research organizations. China represents a “prolific and effective cyber-espionage threat,” the DNI reported, citing “substantial” cyber attack capabilities, including “localized, temporary disruptions to critical infrastructure.” China is also “hacking journalists, stealing personal information,” and employing tools that attack free speech online, the report said. At home, it routinely blocks internet content it considers threatening.

Militarily, the People’s Liberation Air Force and Navy are the largest in the Indo-Pacific region and are fielding power-projection capabilities at an accelerated rate, the DNI reported. The People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force has “highly accurate short-, medium-, and intermediate-range conventional systems … capable of holding U.S. and allied bases in the region at risk.”

The intel community expects a Chinese space station will be in low Earth orbit by 2024, and is planning a robotic research station on the moon, followed by “an intermittently crewed lunar base.”

Russia, meanwhile, continues its campaign to “undermine U.S. influence, develop new international norms and partnerships,” and divide Western nations and their alliances, hoping to become “a major player in a new multipolar international order.”

While the DNI said Russia doesn’t seek direct conflict with U.S. forces, Moscow thinks the U.S. is trying to undermine the Putin regime and install Western-friendly governments on Russia’s borders. Russia would like “an accommodation” with the U.S. on “mutual noninterference in both countries’ domestic affairs” and wants the U.S. to recognize Russia’s sphere of influence over much of the former Soviet Union.

Among those nations, the DNI thinks Russia is “well positioned” to interfere militarily in Belarus and continues to try to destabilize Ukraine.

The intel community expects Russia to continue using influence campaigns, military aid, combined exercises, etc., to advance its own interest and undermine those of the U.S.

Moscow will “insert itself into crises” when its interests are involved, and will try to “turn a power vacuum into an opportunity” where it can, or where the costs of action are low.

The DNI said Russia is responsible for various assassinations and attempted assassinations—such as opposition activist Alexei Navalny—with chemical weapons. In the Middle East and North Africa, it’s using its involvement in Syria and Libya to “increase its clout, undercut U.S. leadership” and offer itself as “an indispensable mediator,” to gain military basing rights and economic opportunities.

Russia continues to court Venezuela and Cuba with arms sales and energy deals to expand its access to regional resources. It’s also still using its energy assets as a coercive negotiating tool, the main example being its cutting off gas to Ukraine and Europe for two weeks in 2009.

Militarily, Russia is seeing flat or declining spending, but “emphasizes new weapons” that threaten the U.S. and neighboring countries. Its ability to project power is limited by distance, and the DNI judges that Russia would find it hard to “sustain intensive combat operations” far from home. It uses private military companies to extend its reach and conceal its involvement.

Russia will remain the “largest and most capable” threat to the U.S. in terms of weapons of mass destruction, the intel community said. It has modernized all its strategic weapons and increases their capabilities consistently. Though it has stepped up security, its ability to keep its nuclear materials safe is still a “concern.” Russia views strategic weapons as critical to its deterrent, making up for a conventional disadvantage. Meanwhile, it’s developing a “large, diverse, and modern set of nonstrategic systems” which could carry a nuclear warhead.

As a cyber enemy, Russia continues to target critical infrastructure, “including underwater cables and industrial control systems” in the U.S., showing that it could wreak havoc on private information systems if it chose to. Russia is also hacking journalists and organizations critical of its regime. Russia “almost certainly considers cyber attacks an acceptable option to deter adversaries, control escalation, and prosecute conflicts,” the DNI asserted.

Haines labeled Russia one of the “most serious intelligence threats” to the U.S., using various means to undermine the U.S. and its allies, “sowing discord inside the United States and influencing U.S. voters and decision making.” Russia interfered or attempted to interfere in the 2016, 2018, and 2020 U.S. elections, the DNI noted.

In space, Russia remains a key competitor with a large network of sensing and communications satellites, and it is fielding new anti-satellite weapons. These include jamming, cyber, directed energy, on-orbit, and ground-based systems.

Iran will continue to be a threat to the U.S., seeking to become the regional hegemon in the Middle East and reduce U.S. influence there. It views the U.S. as the chief obstacle to its diplomatic, military, and economic goals. It will use proxy forces throughout the region, and calculates its actions to fall just short of what would elicit a significant U.S. military response or trigger “direct conflict.”

Iran is still trying to destabilize Iraq and build its influence there, seeking to create a consensus to push the U.S. out of the area. It’s looking for a permanent military presence in Syria and doing so by striking economic deals with Damascus. These efforts are aimed at threatening Israel and supporting Hezbollah. Likewise, it will continue its presence and involvement in Yemen, supplying missiles and unmanned systems to strike at U.S. and Saudi interests in the area. Teheran is building ties with Afghanistan in order to be a major influence there when the U.S. withdraws its forces.

Iran’s military has improved, developing highly precise tactical ballistic missiles, with the largest such inventory in the Middle East. Its pursuit of new weapons continues despite its economic troubles.  

The intelligence community said U.S. law enforcement has “arrested numerous individuals with connections to Iran as agents of influence or for collecting information on Iranian dissidents in the U.S.” Iran’s intelligence agency has also attempted assassinations and kidnappings in Europe.

Although Iran continues some nuclear activities, “we continue to assess that Iran is not currently undertaking” the activities needed to achieve a nuclear “breakout,” Haines said. It is, however, building a new 40 megawatt heavy water reactor.

Iran also is engaging in cyber espionage and election interference, having attacked an Israeli water facility last year. It also attempted to influence the 2020 U.S. election by undermining voter confidence in election officials.

North Korea continues to see nuclear weapons as its guarantor of survival against foreign intervention and attack, and the intel community believes that Kim Jong Un thinks he will “over time … gain international acceptance and respect as a nuclear power.” He is apparently not swayed by pressures to change course in this regard. Kim is also building his conventional forces and cyber capabilities as further deterrents and coercive capabilities.

Haines said North Korea’s conventional military power will pose “an increasing threat to the United States, South Korea, and Japan.” Pyongyang paraded its growing missile capability in January 2021 and October 2020.

Although North Korea ended its self-imposed moratorium on nuclear weapons and ICBM testing in late 2019, it hasn’t conducted any new tests of such systems since.

“Kim may be considering whether to resume long-range missile or nuclear testing this year to try to force the United States to deal with him on [his own] terms,” the DNI said.

In cyber, North Korea “probably possesses the expertise” to cause “temporary, limited disruptions of some critical infrastructure … and business networks” in the U.S. and may be able to disrupt software supply chains. It has conducted cyber theft operations “against financial institutions and cryptocurrency exchanges worldwide,” and likely has gotten away with stealing “hundreds of millions of dollars,” which it‘s likely using to fund missile development, the DNI said.