According to recent press reports China just tested a nuclear-capable hypersonic glide vehicle. And, the American intelligence community was caught completely off guard by this test. How is that possible? How did the largest, most expensive intelligence apparatus ever-known miss this?
Upfront, it should be emphasized that this is a really big deal. The weapon in question goes into space, orbits the globe, and then dives back down into the atmosphere and glides to its target. Known as a Fractional Orbital Bombardment System, or FOBS, such a weapon can effectively strike anywhere in a completely unpredictable manner. It does not follow a fixed ballistic trajectory.
This missile is maneuverable. It can change direction. It can weave its way to its target. It travels at incredibly high speed.
This means this weapon can render our existing missile defense systems effectively useless. It can even attack from directions we have never anticipated. For instance, a Chinese weapon of this type could come towards the United States from the direction of the South Pole, while all our radar systems are focused in a different direction.
This is a game-changing weapon. This is exactly the kind of thing our intelligence services are supposed to detect.
Yet, multiple sources have reported that this launch and the capabilities of this new weapon shocked U.S. intelligence. Per the Financial Times, one source inside the Department of Defense had this response to the launch. “We have no idea how they did this.”
We spend a lot of money on intelligence. We buy a lot of gear. We employ a lot of people. That all looks good on paper, but it does not necessarily translate into collection or production.
The key missing piece in our gigantic intelligence machine is HUMINT, human intelligence. We have satellites. We have hackers. We collect emails and radio transmissions all over the planet.
All of that is wonderful. All of that can only tell you so much. And all of that is known to our adversaries, who are fully capable of defending themselves against much of this collection and leaving us blind.
At some point what you need is intelligence from human sources. That the Chinese have had an interest in glide vehicles for some time is well known. That they have been working with the concept for years is also well known. Only a spy inside the glide vehicle program, though, is going to tell you the exact status of Chinese efforts. Only a spy is going to tell you that they will launch tomorrow.
We do not have those spies. This is not because it is impossible to recruit them. It is because increasingly we do not have the capability to do so.
When Barack Obama came to office our premier human intelligence collection agency, the Central Intelligence Agency was already suffering from a bad case of bureaucratic hardening of the arteries. The hard-charging, often hard-drinking operators who knew how to run operations and recruit sources were being replaced by desk jockeys and ladder climbers. It was already true that you would make rank faster staying stateside and laughing at the boss’s jokes than running ops in the field.
Obama injected a whole new element. He began the rampant politicization of the CIA. Now it was not just a matter of corporate ladder climbing. Now it was a matter of taking sides politically, “getting your mind right” and towing the party line. That party in this case would be the increasingly leftist Democratic Party.
John Brennan, an analyst, whose rise to power was based on his personal relationship with Bill Clinton, became Director. His focus was less on foreign collection than on palace intrigue and acting to advance a leftist agenda. He would go on to run the attempted coup against Donald Trump in 2016, push the ridiculous Russian dossier narrative and then bury the story of Hunter Biden’s laptop.
Brennan was replaced by Gina Haspel, his protégé. Incredibly she remained in place throughout the Trump administration ensuring that the CIA – at the highest levels – would remain loyal to a leftist ideology and do everything possible to thwart Trump’s agenda.
Haspel was then replaced by William Burns. He came to the CIA from his position as head of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. In that capacity, he worked closely with Chinese institutions, which are involved in espionage against the United States. Under his leadership, the Carnegie Endowment accepted vast sums of money from Chinese entities directly tied to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and Chinese intelligence.
I think we can safely assume Burns, who has no intelligence background of any kind, is not going to push very hard on the Chinese target.
Espionage is a hard business. To succeed in this business you need very special, highly trained, and highly seasoned operators acting within a system that emphasizes creativity and audacity. Those operators, of necessity, need to spend the bulk of their lives abroad in the ‘back alleys’ and remote mountain ranges of the world.
We still have a lot of very good people at CIA who came there because they wanted to make a difference and protect the nation they love. Unfortunately, they no longer work within a structure focused on national defense or on results. They now work within the confines of an unwieldy, highly bureaucratic, and increasingly politicized machine.
We need to change that, and we need to change it soon. Otherwise, the recent Chinese missile launch will only be the first in a series of increasingly dangerous surprises for us here at home.