The Kitchen Sync

November 20, 2020

Defense Index Released

What's new: Heritage has released its 2021 Index of Military Strength -- the only non-governmental and only annual assessment of US Military Strength.

Why this matters: "As currently postured, the U.S. military is only marginally able to meet the demands of defending America’s vital national interests."

How it works:

  • Each year, The Heritage Foundation’s Index of U.S. Military Strength employs a standardized, consistent set of criteria, accessible both to government officials and to the American public, to gauge the U.S. military’s ability to perform its missions in today’s world.

  • The Index assesses the ease or difficulty of operating in key regions based on existing alliances, regional political stability, the presence of U. S. military forces, and the condition of key infrastructure.

  • Threats are assessed based on the behavior and physical capabilities of actors that pose challenges to vital U.S. national interests.

The Status of U.S. Military Power: We characterized the services and the nuclear enterprise on a five-category scale ranging from “very weak” to “very strong,” benchmarked against criteria elaborated in the full report. 

  • Army as “Marginal.” The Army has fully committed to modernizing its forces for great-power competition, but its programs are still in their development phase, and it will be a few years before they are ready for acquisition and fielding.

  • Navy as “Marginal,” Trending Toward “Weak.” The technology gap between the Navy and its peer competitors is narrowing in favor of competitors, and the Navy’s ships are aging faster than they are being replaced.

  • Air Force as “Marginal.” The shortage of pilots and flying time for those pilots degrades the ability of the Air Force to generate the amount and quality of combat air power that would be needed to meet wartime requirements.

  • Marine Corps as “Marginal.” The score for the Corps’ capacity was raised to “marginal” from “weak” but only because this Index has changed the threshold, lowering it from 36 infantry battalions to 30 battalions in acknowledgement of the Corps’ argument that it is a one-war force that also stands ready for a broad range of smaller crisis-response tasks.

  • Space Force as “Not Assessed.” As of mid-2020, the Space Force is still in the process of being established. Personnel numbers are small. Given the nascent state of the Space Force, we do not render an assessment of the service in the 2021 Index.

  • Nuclear Capabilities as “Marginal,” Trending Toward “Strong.” It should be emphasized that “trending toward strong” assumes that the U.S. maintains its commitment to modernization of the entire nuclear enterprise—from warheads to platforms to personnel to infrastructure—and allocates needed resources accordingly. Without this commitment, this overall score will degrade rapidly to “weak.”

Key Threat Actors:

  • Russia remains the primary threat to American interests in Europe and is the most pressing threat to the United States.

  • China, the most comprehensive threat that the U.S. faces, continues to modernize and expand its military and pay particular attention to its space, cyber, and artificial intelligence capabilities.

  • Iran represents by far the most significant security challenge to the United States, its allies, and its interests in the greater Middle East.

  • North Korea’s military poses a security challenge for American allies South Korea and Japan, as well as for U.S. bases in those countries and Guam.

  • In the Afghanistan–Pakistan (AfPak) region, non-state terrorist groups pose the greatest threat to the U.S. homeland and the overall stability of the South/Southwest Asia region.

  • A broad array of terrorist groups remain the most hostile of any of the threats to America examined in the Index.

What we are thinking: This Index is one of Heritage's marquee products and for good reason. There is no better single source of data and insight on the US's current military capability in comparison to its national security demands and its key competitors. Take time to review this important report.


The China Challenge

What's new: There have been several interesting developments in the last week concerning China -- including how the US is thinking strategically, the latest on TikTok, and Beijing's belligerence. 

Why this matters: These and other developments are no doubt shaping the future of US-China policy.

Key points:

  • The US State Department issued a new reportThe Elements of the China Challenge, which makes the clarion assessment that, "The CCP aims not merely at preeminence within the established world order ...  but to fundamentally revise world order, placing the People’s Republic of China (PRC) at the center and serving Beijing’s authoritarian goals and hegemonic ambitions."

  • President Trump has extended TikTok's deadline to sell assets allowing it to operate in the US. Last Friday's original deadline was extended 15 days until November 27. If you're wondering what all the fuss is about -- check out this video of me (Klon) talking to 60 Minutes about why the Chinese app is a very real threat.

  • Finally, Beijing is getting pushy with the FIVE EYES and especially Australia. On Wednesday, the governments of the US, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom issued a joint statement condemning China's imposition of authoritarian control in Hong Kong. China's Foreign Ministry Spokesman Zhao Lijian responded, “It doesn’t matter whether they have 5 eyes or 10 eyes, if they dare to damage China’s sovereignty, security and development, they should be careful or their eyes will be plucked out.”

  • Relatedly, China released a series of 14 disputes with the government of Australia, with one Chinese official saying, "China is angry. If you make China the enemy, China will be the enemy." Aussie Prime Minister Scott Morrison replied by saying, "That’s nonsense ... I can assure you, we will always be Australia, act in our interests and in accordance with our values."

What we're thinking: As the West comes to a sort of consensus on the challenge of China, it is important that the next Administration not take their eyes off the Beijing ball. And, don't be surprised if significant action is taken against TikTok and other Chinese companies before the end of January.


Another Section 230 Hearing (by the numbers)

What's new: This week the US Senate held another hearing with Tech CEOs to discuss possible reforms to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.

Why this matters: The hearing didn't advance the discussion significantly, but it did underscore the reality that Section 230 is unlikely to remain unchanged in the next 12 months. If you need an introduction or refresher to what all the hub-bub is about, checkout Heritage's paper on Section 230.

Key points: Since the policy conversation didn't change that much, here are some stats about the hearing collected by The New York Times.

  • The hearing lasted more than 4 hours and included 127 questions.

  • Republicans asked Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey 72 questions, 53 of which were about how the platforms moderate content. 37 of these questions were about anti-conservative bias and the ideological makeup of each company's workforce.

  • Democrats asked 14 questions concerning content moderation -- primarily focused on preventing the spread of "hate speech" and violence.

  • The second most engaged topic from both sides of the dias was about misinformation, with 39 questions about the propagation of misinformation on social media platforms.

  • Mr. Zuckerberg fielded the majority of the inquiries with 71, and Mr. Dorsey was asked 56 questions.

  • Mr. Graham, the committee chair, asked 15 questions, the most of any senator, while Republicans Ted Cruz of Texas and Josh Hawley of Missouri each asked 12 questions.


Airbnb may owe $1.35B

What's new: The IRS is reviewing Airbnb's '13 and '16 income and has already proposed more than $1 billion in new tax liabilities for the company, according to Vice.

Why this matters: Airbnb is currently valued at more than $30 billion and filed for an IPO in August of this year.

Key points:

  • The potential liabilities were disclosed to investors in its S-1 filing documents that were published this week.

  • According to the filing, the tax agency sent a Draft Notice of Proposed Adjustment in September that said the 2013 tax bill alone could cost an additional $1.35 billion, plus penalties and interest, which exceeds the company's tax liability reserves by $1 billion. The S-1 states that the 2013 tax examination is related to "the valuation of our international intellectual property which was sold in a subsidiary in 2013.

  • Airbnb states that it disagrees with the proposed adjustment and will fight it with the agency and in court if necessary. No further information is offered in the S-1 about the IRS’ 2016 income examination of the company, and Airbnb did not immediately respond to Motherboard’s request for comment.


That's just mean

What's new: A ransomware group took out ads on one of its victims.

Why this matters: This audacity portends even worse attacks in the future.

Key points:

  • A group of ransomware hackers known as "The Ragnar Locker gang" has been targeting Italy's Campari Group beverage company.

  • To turn up the heat on the company and to make them more willing to pay the ransom, Ragnar members hacked a user's Facebook account and used it to take out more than 8,000 ads.

  • The ads threatened to release Campari's data online if the company failed to pay up.

  • The hacked account was eventually discovered, and the ads shut down -- but the damage was done.

What we're thinking: First, taking ads out against your target is just plain mean. But second, and more importantly, this type of brazen action illustrates that ransomware hackers are still able to operate largely unaccosted and that this relative impunity is emboldening these jerks. Look for more audacious (and awful) ransomware operations in the near future.