The U.S. intelligence community on Tuesday released its annual global threat assessment, leading with a wide array of challenges posed by China and its Communist Party leadership, although the report cites numerous threats from other nation states, as well as a host of transnational concerns such as pandemics, cyber and climate change but doesn’t rank any of the threats.
“This assessment focuses on the most direct, serious threats to the United States during the next year,” the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) says in the introduction to the unclassified version of the Annual Threat Assessment of the US Intelligence Community. “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.”
The Trump administration did not release a global threat assessment last year but in 2018 and 2019 the reports from the ODNI led with cyber security challenges. The latest report leads with “China’s push for global power.”
Threats posed by China include regional and global activities such as pressure on India, the buildup of military power in the South China Sea, increased cooperation with Russia in certain areas like defense and the economy, and the continued theft of commercial and military technology from the U.S. and allied companies and research institutions, and seeking unification with Taiwan.
China’s air and sea forces are the largest in the region and the country is pressing ahead on its ability to project power through long-range platforms, the 27-page report says.
“China will continue pursuing its goals of becoming a great power, security 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,” the report says.
In other areas, China will continue to expand its nuclear forces, improve its space capabilities to equal or exceed those of the U.S. for military and economic benefits, including to “erode the US military’s information advantage,” the ODNI says.
The threat from China in cyberspace includes espionage, cyberattacks to disrupt and compromise critical infrastructure, influence operations, surveillance of its own population, and hacking U.S. and non-U.S. citizens for information.
Lawmakers on Capitol Hill will have a cut this week at delving deeper into the report and pressing intelligence community leaders on the top threats. The Senate Intelligence Committee this morning will hold an open hearing with top leaders from the intelligence community, FBI and U.S. Cyber Command before moving to a close hearing. On Thursday, the House Intelligence Committee will do the same.
Various threats from Russia, Iran and North Korea round-out the challenges to the U.S. and its allies and partners in the year and years ahead. The intelligence community believes that Russian “does not want a direct conflict with US forces,” the report says, and wants the U.S. to recognize its influence over countries that previously were in the Soviet Union.
As far as cyber threats go, Russia “will remain a top threat,” targeting critical infrastructure for potential damage in a crisis and disrupting organizations. Russia will also continue to use influence operations to divide Western powers and U.S. citizens, and sow discord in the U.S.
Like China, Russia is also focused on various anti-satellite weapons and capabilities aimed at hindering the space capabilities of the U.S. and its allies.
Russia is also wanting to improve its technological prowess but lacks the resources for the same broad efforts being undertaken by China, the report says. Instead, Russia is focused in just a few areas, including applying artificial intelligence to military technology, it says.
Beyond the nation-state threats, the report lists seven transnational issues, including COVID-19 and diseases, climate change and environmental degradation, emerging technology, cyber, foreign illicit drugs and organized crime, migration, and global terrorism.
Russia, China, Iran and North Korea are still the main cyber threats and “Many skilled foreign cybercriminals targeting the United States maintain mutually beneficial relationships with these and other countries that offer them safe haven or benefit from their activity,” the report says.
In terms of global terrorism, the Islamic State and al-Qaida are still the primary Sunni threats to the U.S. overseas and while they continue to pursue attacks inside the U.S., their ability to do so has been degraded by the U.S. and its allies. The greater domestic terrorism threat comes from lone actors, including those inspired by overseas terrorist organizations and those motivated by “racial bias and antigovernment sentiment,” the report says.
The report also lists various regional and country-specific conflicts that threaten U.S. interests, including Afghanistan, India and Pakistan, Iraq, Syria, Myanmar, Latin America and parts of Africa.