Azov Regiment: Ukraine’s Far-Right Defenders


The Azov Battalion, and subsequently the Azov Regiment, have been the focus of much reporting in Western and Russian media due to both their large voluntary membership and their neo-Nazi ties. However, due to the Ukraine Crisis being a highly politicised situation, divisive units such as Azov arguably lack objective reporting in the media.

Russian media, under the direction of the Kremlin, has tended to exaggerate the power and the impact of the Azov Battalion to support its disinformation campaign presenting the Ukrainian Government and military as fascistic and genocidal. On the other hand, Western media has often played down Azov’s neo-Nazi ties in an attempt to refrain from aiding Kremlin disinformation. In reality, there is a significant neo-Nazi element within Azov, but despite their offensive ideology the Azov Regiment may be one of Ukraine’s best hope’s for resisting the Russian invasion.

Founding of the Azov Battalion

The Azov Battalion was formed on May 5th, 2014, in Mariupol, in the Azov Sea coastal region, as a volunteer militia during the 2014 Ukraine Crisis.

The bulk of the Azov movement was formed around the charismatic leadership of Andriy Biletsky, a member of the Kharkiv branch of the far-right ‘Social National Party of Ukraine’ and founder of the ultranationalist organisation ‘Patriot of Ukraine’. It was members of the ‘Patriot of Ukraine’ who joined the first incarnation of the Azov Battalion, under the leadership of Biletsky and with the support of the governor of Kharkiv.

The roots of the battalion are also found in football hooliganism, with many of the groups founding members being a part of an ‘Ultras’ fan movement for the Ukrainian football club FC Metalist Kharkiv called “Sect 82”. In February 2014, Sect 82 occupied the primary regional administration in Kharkiv and took on the role as a volunteer self-defence militia, in response to the growing separatist movement in the city. Gaining recognition by the Ministry of Internal Affairs, Sect 82 was transformed into the “Eastern Corps” and travelled to Donbas, taking part in the liberation of Mariupol in June 2014. By August 2015 they had officially joined the Azov Battalion.

Azov’s Combat Experience: 2014 Russian Annexation of Crimea

After the withdrawal of Government forces in Mariupol on May 9th, 2014, the Azov Battalion along with the Dnipro-1 Battalion retook the city on June 13th following heavy fighting. The battalions killed 5 separatist militants and destroyed a BRDM-2 armoured vehicle.

Following the Battle of Mariupol, the battalion was relocated to Berdiansk to engage in further recruitment and training.

By the July 16th, the Azov Battalion had 300 volunteers. They fought again in Mariupol in late August and early September 2014, following a rebel offensive attempting to retake the city. During the offensive, Azov soldiers trained citizens of the city to defend themselves as well as helped establish citizen militias. The Azov battalion fought alongside the Donbas battalion, Ukrainian Sea Guard, and ground forces, and notably captured a tank from separatist forces.

After the ceasefire in September 2014, the Azov Battalion was integrated into the National Guard of Ukraine on November 11th, 2014 and received regimental status in January 2015. From this point, the Azov Regiment was given access to heavy arms, and was officially designated as a ‘Special Operations Detachment’. By March 2015 the regiment was comprised of 900 volunteers.

Azov’s Combat Experience: 2022 Russian Invasion of Ukraine

At the beginning of the Russian invasion, the Azov regiment was largely positioned in Mariupol. As a result, the regiment has acted as the primary defending unit against the ongoing Siege of Mariupol since February 24th 2022.

On March 10th, it was reported that members of the Azov regiment and the 72nd brigade conducted a successful ambush of Russia’s 6th Tank Regiment, inflicting significant losses and liquidating its commander Colonel A. Zakharov, in the Brovarsky district of Kyiv.

On March 16th, Russia conducted an airstrike targeting the Donetsk Regional Drama Theatre in Mariupol killing approximately 600 civilians. Russia accused Azov of perpetrating this attack as a ‘false flag‘ operation.

The abandoned HQ of the Azov Regiment based in the northern Kalmiuskyi District of Mariupol was captured by Russian forces on March 22nd.

By April 16th, the Azov regiment alongside members of the 36th Marine Brigade and reportedly around 1000 Ukrainian civilians retreated to the Azovstal Iron and Steel Works after Russian forces successfully occupied Mariupol’s urban areas. Despite threats of storming the Azovstal facility by Chechnya’s leader Ramzan Kadyrov, on April 21st Putin called off the offensive, opting for a blockade instead, in order to minimise troop losses.

Azovstal Iron and Steel Works

It was reported by Ukrainian Authorities that airstrikes and ground offensives against the facility continued on April 23rd, however, these reports have not been independently verified. On April 27th and 28th, Russia conducted heavy bombing of the Azovstal plant. According to a Ukrainian official this included more than 50 airstrikes and resulted in over 430 being injured, however, these numbers have not been independently verified.

Putin called for the continuation of attacks on the Azovstal Iron and Steel Works on May 3rd, with ground assaults being launched against the defending Azov forces and the 36th Marine Brigade.

By May 7th, after Russia agreeing to sporadic openings of evacuation corridors from April 30th, Ukraine released a statement that all women, children and elderly civilians had been successfully evacuated from the industrial facility, with the support of Azov soldiers.

Video evidence released on May 15th suggests that Russian forces have been deploying white phosphorus bombs against the Iron and Steel Works plant.

Speaking from the industrial plant, Azov lieutenant Illya Samoilenko reported that Azov forces had killed approximately 2,500 Russian troops between February 24th and April 25th.

Over 260 soldiers, including 50 who were considered seriously injured, were evacuated from Azovstal and taken to areas under Russian control on May 16th.

On May 17th, the Ukrainian Government announced the end of the ‘combat mission’ in Mariupol, resulting in the surrendering of the besieged troops in the Azovstal industrial facility and the ceding of control of the port city to Russian forces. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky stated that the continued resistance of Azov forces and the 36th Marine Brigade was essential in slowing Russian forces, preventing the rapid seizure of the city of Zaporizhzhia.

By May 18th, the Russian Foreign Ministry announced that since May 17th 959 Ukrainian soldiers had surrendered from the Azovstal facility. 51 out of the 959 soldiers have been sent for medical treatment due to injuries, while the rest have been transported to a former penal colony in Olenivka, situated in the Russian-controlled territory of the Donetsk region.

The fate of the surrendering Azov troops within Azovstal is still unclear, as Russian State Duma Speaker Vyacheslav Volodin suggested a possible ban on the prisoner exchange of Azov Regiment members. Accusing the regiment of war crimes, Volodin stated that they should be tried in Russia rather than exchanged.

Wounded Soldier in the Azovstal Iron and Steel Works facility: Posted in the Azov Telegram Channel


There are no official sources confirming the structure of the Azov Regiment. The following structure was presented on several websites, but should be considered unverified.

-Regimental HQ

-1st Commando Battalion

-2nd Commando Battalion (in formation stage)

-5th Tank Battalion

-Field Artillery Battery

-Reconnaissance Company

-Security Company

-Engineer Company

-Maintenance Company

-Logistic Company

-Signal Platoon

-CBRN-defense Platoon

-4th (Training) Battalion

-Regimental Depot Kyiv

-Regimental Depot Mariupol

-Regimental Depot Berdiansk


The Azov Battalion was founded with an explicit far-right ideological leaning. The ultranationalist organisation the ‘Social National Assembly’, founded by Azov’s creator Andriy Biletsky, has publicly stated its aims as:

  • “To prepare Ukraine for further expansion and to struggle for the liberation of the entire White Race from the domination of the internationalist speculative capital.”
  • “To punish severely sexual perversions and any interracial contacts that lead to the extinction of the white man.”

Moreover, The Azov Battalion itself uses the Wolfsangel and the Black Sun within its insignia, both of which are prominent neo-Nazi symbols. However, Biletsky denied the Wolfsangel being a part of their insignia and stated that the symbol is a result of the intersection between letters that signify the slogan “Ідея Нації” (National Idea).

Furthermore, a number of soldiers within the Azov Battalion have been filmed wearing helmets with swastikas and SS runes, and reportedly several soldiers have also incorporated Nazi and neo-Nazi symbols onto their uniforms and have shown reporters tattoos of Nazi symbols.

A spokesperson for the Battalion, Andriy Diachenko, has stated to news organisations that he estimates only 10-20% of the group’s membership are Nazis in 2015. However, even if this estimate is correct, this indicates the military and government’s acceptance of a sizeable minority of explicit neo-Nazis within a National Guard unit.


China’s New Silk Road


Historically, the Silk Road was the most extensive system of routes to trade goods, extending approximately 6,437 kilometres. Initially, these routes connected China, the Middle East, and Europe. Under the Han Dynasty (206 B.C.- 220 A.D.) the Silk Road started to take proper shape, offering what we would call today international trade. Although the Silk Road provided endless opportunities to trade goods, the travels were an opportunity to learn about diverse cultures. Nonetheless, in 1453 C.E., the Ottoman Empire closed off the routes to end trade with the West.

Map of the Old Silk Road.

Today, the New Silk Road, also known as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), can be considered the reestablishment of the original Silk Road. Indeed, some routes slightly changed over the centuries, but the aims are the same: expansionism and trade. 

Undoubtedly, the New Silk Road offers a more significant improvement in international trade between China and the West. Nonetheless, Chinese expansionism negatively affects developing countries of Central Asia, where China establishes new businesses and cuts off traditional ones. Similarly, China’s gateway to the heart of the West will challenge and pose some risks to Europe.  

Key Judgements

K.J. – 1 The New Silk Road will highly likely improve transport between Asia and Europe. 

K.J. – 2 China’s expansionism towards the West will afflict small businesses and traditions of emerging countries of Central Asia. 

K.J. – 3 Europe will enjoy opportunities from the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and challenges. 

The New Silk Road 

The New Silk Road represents the attempt to re-establish the ancient trading routes of the original Silk Road. In 2013, President Xi Jinping announced the creation of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) to improve economic and trading possibilities between China and the West. 

The New Silk Road extends itself through two major corridors by land and sea. Firstly, the land corridor starts from Beijing, passing through Uzbekistan, Pakistan, Turkey, Romania, Poland, and Germany. Secondly, the sea corridor begins from the port of Beijing, touching Cambodia, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Southeast Africa, Oman, the Suez Canal, and Venice.

Map of the New Silk Road

The Impact of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI)

The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is the new essential piece of China’s international economic policy. Indeed, this project increases China’s influence as a global economic superpower. Since the initiative’s start in 2013, China introduced a $900 billion scheme to enable the global economy to flourish again. Moreover, $8 trillion is dedicated to creating infrastructures in sixty-eight countries, focusing on developing countries lacking globalization and economic possibilities, such as Cambodia and Myanmar. 


Most of the projects listed below result from Chinese will and planning. Although the country of construction funds these projects, the Chinese government gives loans for the actual realization of the projects. 

Logistics and Transportation 

– The Chinese government invested in a 37 km-long asphalt road linking National Road no. 5 in Kampong Speu and National Road No. 4 in Kandal (Cambodia). 

– 215 kilometres Padma Rail Link from Dhaka to Jessore in Bangladesh. Due in June 2022. 

Khorgos Gateway Dry Port connects Kazakhstan to China by rail. It is also known as the “central station of the New Silk Road”, as it connects twenty-seven Chinese cities with eleven European ones. 

Gwadar Port is the China-Pakistan economic corridor. The U.S. $54 billion worth, the Gwadar port is the gateway to the Arabian Sea and an essential part of the sea corridor. 

– 370 kilometres of a high-speed railway between Budapest and Belgrade, worth €3.8 billion.

Gwadar Port in Pakistan. Photo by Saadssuddozai via Wikimedia Commons.

Consequences of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI)

From an economic point of view, the Belt and Road Initiative is beneficial for economic integration, infrastructure improvements, and trade cost reductions. For instance, BRI can decrease global poverty for at least 8.7 million people through infrastructure investments in emerging countries, such as Cambodia. 

Nonetheless, while China is bolstering its global economy through infrastructure and trade strategy, it is also expanding its geopolitical influence as an economic superpower. Indeed, China’s expansionism is negatively afflicting the well-being of some populations in poor and undeveloped countries, such as Cambodia and Myanmar. Notably, the construction of new infrastructure destroys small businesses and displaces villages without realistically increasing job opportunities for locals. 

For instance, the infrastructure development in Cambodia is growing dept and raises concerns about the resettlement of small Cambodian businesses and land grabbing. The 400-megawatt Lower Sesan 2 dam is a controversial project. It displaced locals from their villages and had severe environmental impacts. 

Similarly, Myanmar is dominated by hydropower dams and transport infrastructure, which affect local communities, small-and-medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), and traders. 

The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI): European Opportunities

Alongside projects in Central Asia, China is also investing in creating and expanding existing trade routes in Europe along the original Silk Road. Many European countries see an opportunity in the New Silk Road as it increases transport possibilities, that they will economically benefit. Indeed, the new routes of BRI will offer lower transport costs, new sales markets along the road, and shorter transport times. Therefore, BRI substantially improves connectivity between Asia and Europe. 

For instance, China is one of the leading trading partners of Germany’s Port of Hamburg, counting 2.6 million twenty-foot seaborne containers (TEU) in 2021. 

The 12,000 kilometres rail route between Hamburg and China is faster and more convenient than by sea, linking Hamburg to twenty-five cities in China.

New Silk Road
Port of Hamburg. Photo via Pixabay.

The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI): European Challenges

Although the Belt and Road Initiative can bring economic and logistical opportunities to Europe, Europe can encounter challenges and risks. China’s involvement as a contractor in Europe can create challenges linked to the failure of understanding economic, legal, and local environments. For instance, the construction of a 49 kilometres motorway in Poland was rejected by the European Council on Foreign Relations. Indeed, China Overseas Engineering Group (COVEC) was inadequately paying Polish workers, lacked permits for import, and incapacitated Polish markets. 

Moreover, another challenge regards the potential Chinese dominance of rail transits for trading. In other words, China will gain more market power over European trade than E.U. could ever obtain. Therefore, resulting in unilateral gains and manoeuvres on the Chinese part.  


Operation Momentum: The Secret Laos Guerrilla Force

Hmong People Crossing the Laos-Vietnam Border in 1971
(Img; Hmong People Crossing the Laos-Vietnam Border in 1971; via Flickr)

The political stability of Laos crumbled on the outbreak of the Laotian Civil War in 1959; a war waged by the communist Lao People’s Liberation Army against the Royal Lao Government. Often called the ‘Secret War’, the Laos Civil War had both sides receiving significant clandestine support from Cold War adversaries. For the Kingdom of Laos, this would be the US, and for the Communist forces, sympathisers from Cambodia, Thailand, and Vietnam.

The series of successful coups – beginning a year after the outbreak of civil war – only destabilised the Laotian political system further [source]. Although Laos had been overtaken by a politically ‘neutralist’ party, the war between the communists and monarchy supporters intensified. In the US, Red Scare hysteria grew domestically, considering the increasing prowess of the Soviet Union [source]. Accordingly, the US stepped up its efforts in the war on Communism, with Laos in the line of fire [source].

Operation Momentum

The Hmong People

The Hmong people are an ethnic minority group that settled in mountainous regions of Laos and Vietnam. With a rich cultural history through the occupation of remote regions, the Hmong people were almost entirely self-sufficient. The CIA saw significant opportunity in the guerrilla-style fighting capabilities of the Hmong people, which was already adapted to unconventional rural and jungle warfare. Ultimately, the CIA believed that the Hmong force would be best placed to attack groups of Communist Pathet Lao and North Vietnamese enemies, as a result of their extensive geographic and cultural understanding, as well as their unconventional warfare capabilities [source].  

The Hmong community too saw Communism as a threat to their autonomy and land ownership, which would make recruitment much easier [source]. Therefore, Operation Momentum was born: to arm and train an indigenous Hmong force as part of the US proxy war. 

A Plan in Action

The CIA ran Operation Momentum from 1960 until 1974. The plan, approved directly by the Kennedy administration, was to train an elite force of native guerrilla fighters. This force would assist US forces with covert military operations in Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam. This began on a small scale but ramped up significantly throughout the war [source]. At its height, Operation Momentum was costing US$500 million annually – equivalent to US$3.3 billion today [source].

In 1960, the CIA approached General Vang Pao, the charismatic and undisputed leader of the Hmong. In exchange for fighters, the CIA would provide training and supplies in what would theoretically be a mutually beneficial fight against the Communist insurgency. This would include aerial support, transport, weaponry, and other relevant military and civilian supplies [source]. Additionally, the CIA offered refuge in the US in the event of a military loss [source]. On this basis, General Vang Pao agreed.

Hmong Commander Vang Pao in 1961
                                              (Img; Hmong Commander Vang Pao in 1961; via Flickr)

Operation Momentum: The Largest Covert Operation in CIA History

Operation Momentum ultimately marked the beginning of the militarisation of the CIA [source]. The project, which experienced several early successes, grew significantly as the war continued. It is believed to be the CIA’s most extensive covert operation due to the enormous scale of training, operational support, and armament involved. Therefore, Operation Momentum is believed to be responsible for the training of over 19,000 troops, the average age of recruits being 15 years old [source]. The force grew to an estimated 30,000 personnel at its height.

The project ran through the presence of dedicated CIA agents within Laos, along with Thai Police Aerial Reinforcement. These agents would liaise with US Forces, the US embassy in Vientiane, and Air America to provide logistic support to Operation Momentum forces wherever possible [source].

A Loss of Momentum

The operation began to wind down in 1973 due to a political peace treaty signed in Paris. All US assistance was withdrawn by 1974. However, the Laos Civil War was still ongoing. Without US intervention, the Laotian force was significantly weakened. The Civil War continued for several years, though ultimately the Communist forces and North Vietnamese belligerents were victorious. In 1975, on the brink of the fall of Laos to communist forces, the US airlifted General Vang Pao and 2,500 Hmong fighters to safety in Thailand.

After Withdrawal

Although this was the end of the CIA’s involvement, this was not the end for surviving indigenous communities. Following its victory, the Pathet Lao administration designated the entire ethnic minority Hmong people as traitors to their country due to their allegiance to the monarchy and CIA during the civil war. As such, over 40,000 Hmong people fled from Laos, though it is believed a further 100,000 people died whilst being displaced from their homeland [source]. Whilst some Hmong people, mainly fighters, made it to the US, the CIA did not keep its promise of offering a safe new home for the majority of Hmong people who were displaced as a result of the Civil War [source].

250-pound bombs used to fight Northern Vietnamese forces in Laos, image taken in US and Laotian shared Military Base
(Img; 250-pound bombs used to fight Northern Vietnamese forces in Laos, image taken in US and Laotian shared Military Base; via

Human Rights Watch allege that Hmong people continued to be persecuted on the basis of their ethnicity and religious background as recently as 2008, illustrating that deep scars remain on this community as a result of the Laos Civil War [source]. Thailand continues to extradite Hmong refugees back to Laos, in spite of the significant humanitarian risks [source]. General Vang Pao later died in exile in the US in 2011 [source].


Operation Momentum remains one of the largest-scale clandestine interventions the CIA has ever undertaken. The mission is controversial; whilst aiding an under-militarised people, the mission was ultimately unsuccessful and led to the ethnic persecution of an indigenous community for decades to come. To this day, Laos holds the title for the most heavily bombed country in world history [source], which highlights the destruction and bloodshed that Operation Momentum left in its wake.


G9 Proliferation In Haiti: 6 Months Outlook

Haiti turmoil and protests under G9 ruling. Photo by Digital Democracy via Flickr.


G9 is one of the most powerful gangs in Haiti founded in 2020. G9 leader is Jimmy Chérizier, also known as “Barbecue”, a former police officer back in 2017. Following criminal charges, Chérizier founded the G9 in Port-au-Prince to allegedly maintain social order in the capital’s neighbourhoods. In addition, the relationship between the G9 and President Moïse helped the proliferation of the criminal federation. Indeed, president Moïse and the Haitian Tét Kale Party (PHTK) sponsored Chérizier through financial, material, and logistical support. Therefore, the assassination of President Moïse will constitute a drawback for their economic and political interests in the next six months.

Key Judgement 1

it is probable that G9 will maintain its position of power without the help of PHTK in the next 6 months.

  • The assassination of President Moïse represents both a drawback and an opportunity for G9. On the one hand, PHTK’s lack of support will threaten the stability of G9. Indeed, the lack of financial and material resources offered by PHTK will disadvantage the criminal activities of G9. 
  • On the other hand, Chérizier is likely to obtain official political recognition by July 2022. The political instability of the Haitian government can offer opportunities for G9 territorial expansion and political engagement. 
  • Gangs already control 60% of Haitian areas. Therefore, they will likely control most of the territory by the end of Spring 2022.
  • In addition, the alliance with other Haitian gangs is likely to reinforce the criminal control and the power of Chérizier. The G9 an Fanmi (G9 and Family) is the new agglomerate of the most relevant gangs in Haiti, dominating most of Haiti’s west side. 

Logo of the Haitian political party PHTK. Photo by PuertoportoIVO via Wikimedia Commons.

Key Judgement 2

G9 and gangs violence will likely endanger the wellbeing of Port-au-Prince residents in the next 6 months.

  • The lack of governance in Haiti leads to gangs’ competition for territorial control. Only in June 2021, a dispute between G9 and the rival gang of Ti Bwa in the district of Martissant endangered the lives of hundreds of residents. 
  • In addition, the battle for supremacy between G9 and 400 Mawozo (gang connected to the kidnapping of twelve US missionaries) is likely to transform Port-au-Prince into a warzone.
  • Unsurprisingly, 1.5 million residents were affected by gang violence (i.e., kidnappings and extortion), increasing the already existing humanitarian crisis. As a result of violence and political insecurity, Haitian people will lose support from humanitarian agencies in the next six months.

Key Judgement 3

The UN Security Council is unlikely to intervene in G9 controlled areas in the next six months. 

  • The UN Security Council remains sceptical about giving support to Haiti due to the current instability. Indeed, it is risky for the UN to be involved in the campaign against gang leadership as Haitian police and military forces are incapable of supporting the UN. 
  • The UN will encourage new Presidential elections in February 2022, alongside other recommendations, to provide long-term stability and economic recovery in the next six months. 

G9 July 2022
Port-au-Prince, Haiti. A UN peacekeeper arrives on the scene of a protest calling for the burning of two suspected kidnappers. Photo by United Nations Photos via Flickr.

Modernisation Armed Forces of the Philippines

Modernisation Armed Forces Philippines
Philippine Air Force pilots onboard their newly acquired T129 ATAK attack helicopter. The PAF is expecting two to be delivered in December while the remaining four will be delivered this year


Prior to the end of the Cold War, the Philippines was known to be one of the few countries in Southeast Asia with a well-equipped military. This was, in part, thanks to the support of the American government in providing military grade weapons and vehicles for the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) since it was dealing with growing pro-communist and extremist nationalist insurgencies. Because of this, the modernisation of the Armed Forces of the Philippines was only a second thought.

In response to the withdrawal of American troops in the country, lawmakers began to formulate a way to start the reequip of the armed forces. Republic Act Number 7898 on February 23, 1995, was passed in the Philippine Congress as a means of improving the military’s capabilities [source]. This was in response to the presence of Chinese structures in Mischief Reef after they were first seen in January 1995 [source]. This was supposed to modernise the AFP over 15 years until 2007 with a minimum budget of P50 billion for the first five years [source]. Due to the Asian Financial Crisis in 1997, further funding for modernisation was halted and neglected until 2010 [source].

Republic Act Number 10349, passed on December 11, 2012, was designed to amend RA 7898 and extend it for 15 years with a minimum budget of P75 billion for the first five years with plans to end by 2027 [source].

Key Judgement 1

Outside events are almost certain to influence funding and/or to continue the modernisation of the Armed Forces of the Philippines in the next 12 months.

  • Manila relied on the presence of American troops stationed in Subic and Clark for most of the external force protection, which was guaranteed under the Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) [source]. The Armed Forces of the Philippines also relied on their close ties with the US military to get technical and logistic assistance when the bases were still under US military command [source]. Because of this arrangement, this allowed the AFP to orient itself on internal security matters.
  • The presence of Chinese structures in the Mischief Reef in 1995 forced Manila to start the modernisation program. This came after American troops withdrew from the country in 1992 due to the Philippine Senate not renewing the lease on Subic and Clark [source].

  • The Asian Financial Crisis in 1997 forced the government to stop initial funding the program [source]. This was followed by neglect before RA 7898 expired. Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin blamed the failure of the law due to bad implementation on most of the allocated funds [source].

Key Judgement 2

Internal politics are almost certain to interfere with how the modernisation of the Armed Forces of the Philippines would proceed in the next 12 months.

  • During the acquisition of the Jose Rizal-class frigate, Special Assistant to the President Sec. Bong Go was accused of favoring the Hanhwa Systems Naval Shield Combat Management System (CMS) instead of the Thales TACTICOS Baseline 2 CMS chosen by the Philippine Navy [source]. Go has denied playing any role in it, but critics have cited his role as an example of unwanted political interference.

  • Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana declared that Vice Admiral Ronald Mercado was trying to interfere with the selection process of the frigate’s CMS so that the contract can be awarded to another defense company [source]. He was subsequently replaced.

Key Judgement 3

Sudden changes in the country’s internal security and corruption are almost certain to force Manila to change priorities on modernisation of the Armed Forces of the Philippines in the next 12 months.

  • In January 1991, Republic Act Number 6975 was passed by Congress, which mandated the transfer of powers from the AFP to the Philippine National Police as Manila projected the defeat of most insurgencies in the country by 1997 [source]. However, the resurgence of the New People’s Army (NPA) and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) forced the passage of Republic Act Number 8551, which ended AFP plans to reduce manpower and instead, concentrate its efforts on internal security [source]. This meant that potential plans for modernising the military had to be placed on the side as a long-term project and forgo looking at external defense for a while.
  • On July 27, 2003, 323 rogue officers and enlisted soldiers from the Philippine Army’s Scout Rangers and the Philippine Navy’s Special Warfare Group (currently known as NAVSOCOM or Naval Special Operations Command), occupied the Oakwood Premier Apartments compound in Makati City. Called the Magdalo Group (Soldiers of the Nation), they aired their grievances against corruption in most parts of the military, including connections to modernisation funds [source]. This is not the first time that problems of corruption and incompetence were raised against the institution. These issues have always hampered Manila’s efforts to modernise the AFP.
Philippine Navy’s Naval Special Operation Command (NAVSOCOM) in a training ops in Zamboanga Peninsula
  • The subsequent investigation over the allegations suggested that there was little to no planning on decision-making on supporting the modernisation of the armed forces [source].
  • In 2015, news reports in the Philippines mentioned that Defense Secretary Gazmin, outgoing Armed Forces Chief of Staff General Gregorio Pio Catapang Jr. and Army Commander Major General Hernando Iriberri approved the cancellation of purchasing a shore-based missile system from Israel, meant to deter Chinese incursion in the West Philippine Sea [source]. Instead, ballistic helmets, body armor, night vision goggles and radios due to the need of fighting terrorist threats from the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) and the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) [source].
  • Defense Secretary Lorenzana mentioned in 2018 that internal security operations are slowing down efforts to modernise the equipment used by the AFP [source]. The money allocated were instead spent to help the displaced refugees from Marawi and for expenditures for the AFP during the siege.
An image compilation summarising the objectives of the Second Horizon portion of the AFP Modernisation program; via

Operation Rolling Thunder: Violent Rumbles Beneath Clouds of Controversy

Operation Rolling Thunder
Two U.S. Navy Grumman A-6A Intruder aircraft (BuNo 154148, 154155) from Attack Squadron 196 (VA-196) “Main Battery” dropping Mk 82 227 kg (500 lbs) bombs over Vietnam.

The Vietnam War is a controversial period in American foreign policy. Operation Rolling Thunder is a controversial period of the Vietnam War. 

Airpower itself is far from controversial. It wins modern wars, and the US is its most prolific user. When the gods of aerial firepower hear the United States Armed Forces cries of summoning, their roaring peals of aggression, hate, and discontent do not cease-fire.

Prayers from the saints run through a divine chain of custody. Flesh and blood in laced jungle boots, speaking above with conviction and piety through VHF and UHF ranges. The targets painted are rife with sins against the stars and stripes, deemed unclean by the powers that be who so solemnly swear to protect and avenge them. For an idealist, at least…

Reality eventually sets in when talking about war. Especially Vietnam. Rolling Thunder isn’t immune from the harsh critiques levied against the government’s task and purpose in the small nation’s rice paddies and jungles. We like to think of the men behind the airstrikes as noble and just, but sometimes there is grey mixed into the black and white nature of war often portrayed by American media.

Rolling Thunder was the brainchild of the men in suits, in collaboration with the men in fatigues. By the campaign’s end, the very nature of war will come into question. What is necessary? To what end? At what cost?

Questions will continue to be asked in the years to follow, as the US navigates through a new frontier of conflict in the counter-insurgency and small-unit warfare sphere.

The skies above the White House darken

Conditions set years before Operation Rolling Thunder ran its first sortie. The communist threat to South Vietnam was on the Pentagon’s radar not long after the Second Great War. From the moment Ho Chi Minh launched the August Revolution in 1945, US intelligence agencies placed a cautious eye on the region. As the Cold War began its long freeze, that eye’s gaze became more laser-focused.

The US increased its support for the anti-communist South Vietnamese in 1962, primarily through air support, although limited.

The North Vietnamese were gaining a steady upper hand without foreign intervention. Morale amongst the South was low, and although the US was wary of entering a full-scale conflict, providing some birds overhead was a proper step in bolstering both the South Vietnamese anti-communist forces. (source)

President Lyndon Johnson enhanced the US involvement in 1964 following the Gulf of Tonkin attack. Air support manoeuvred from occasional strikes and Agent Orange spreading missions to an increase on targets beyond merely supporting the South Vietnamese.

This increase manifested in sorties along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, a crucial web of avenues of approach and ratlines used for troop movement and logistical support by the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese. Johnson wanted to hit them where it hurt and disrupt their ability to move and flourish. The communists rose to the occasion and increased their own attacks on US personnel, thus poking at the patriotic bear, now arising from conventional combat hibernation.

A conglomerate of motives presented themselves before Johnson and his Defense Secretary, Robert McNamara. In consultation with the defense side of the house, and through the political weeds that grew outside the Pentagon’s threshold, they devised a plan.

Operation Rolling Thunder grafted into the branches of war that were growing with prejudice.

Ho Chi Minh and his crew on a pleasant beach stroll in France with some old school cool drip, 1945 (credit: flickr)

Operation Rolling Thunder

Operation Rolling Thunder was a large-scale air assault with multiple purposes and multiple targets. Instead of the textbook “shock and awe” approach to air, they performed a more gradual escalation throughout the duration.

It sounded good on paper: The United States, back-to-back World War champions, is no stranger to exerting mass energy on the battlefield when it needs to. The gloves were off, and Johnson, along with McNamara and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, woke up and chose violence as the answer to the expanding communist problem.

President Johnson’s personal writing after the war revealed his mindset leading up to the operation. Bombs were his “political resources for negotiating a peace.” Planes and munitions were “carrots for the South, strengthening the morale of the South Vietnamese and pushing them to clean up their corrupt house”. For the North, bombs were “sticks”, intended on “pressuring North Vietnam to stop its aggression against the South.” (source)

The operation rolling thunder began on the 2nd of March 1965 and concluded on Halloween 1968. Within those three years were five distinct phases, each with their own goals: (source)

  • Phase I (March-June 1965): Targets were broad and plenty, including troop housing, logistical supply depots, and communication nodes. The goal end-state was to achieve a North Vietnamese surrender out of the imagined fear instilled by a coordinated aerial bombardment. To the planning tables’ dismay, the enemy was determined. Phase I ended up being a steroid shot into its bloodstream, and they constructed elaborate air defense systems throughout their territories.

  • Phase II (July 1965-January 1966): Targets expanded to larger pieces of infrastructure, primarily the kind that enabled troop transport and their included systems (seacraft, land craft, bridges, major roads). The communists continued to survive and fight, resilient as ever.

  • Phase III (January 1966-October 1966): Targets expanded to Petroleum, Oil, and Lubricants (POL)—specifically the resources themselves. Such attacks had been relatively successful in World War II, with POL being a crucial element for a modern force. (source) The resolve of the communist forces remained steadfast, their will to fight ever so present.

  • Phase IV (October 1966-May 1967): Targets expanded to large pieces of key infrastructure, particularly industrial faculties, and power plants. Sorties also struck Hanoi, Vietnam’s capital. Despite that, the enemy persisted.

  • Phase V (May 1967-October 1968): In the ultimate phase, North Vietnamese “fleeting targets of opportunity” were the chefs special. The operation took a bit of a turn in this period after the January 1968 Tet offensive, which diverted air assets to a different mission.

The statistics at the end:

  • 864,000 tons of bombs and missiles dropped

  • 152,399 attack sorties from Navy and Marine Corps aircraft

  • 153,784 attack sorties from Air Force aircraft

  • A dramatic increase in electronic warfare, intelligence operations, and air-air-missile technology

  • Around 1000 US personnel killed or captured

  • Roughly 900 US aircraft destroyed

And of course, the fabled controversy…

Operation Rolling Thunder
A squadron of Navy pilots assigned to Rolling Thunder including future US Senator John McCain who became a POW in 1967 after his plane was shot down. (credit: wikicommons)

Roaring thunder to weeping rain

The Vietnam War was the first major loss in American military history. Not only was it a devastating loss on the battlefield, but was simultaneously a loss in the public sphere back home. Protests and counterculture mark the Vietnam era in the US (with no shortage of banging tunes, mind you).

Scholars, tacticians, military officers, think tanks… all have scoured the after-action reports, testimonies, and literature surrounding the Vietnam War, trying to make sense of the defeat and see where the US went wrong. In her book Political Tribes, Amy Chua writes,

“Fifty years later, the question remains: how did superpower America, with its formidable military, lose to what Lyndon B. Johnson called “a piddling, piss-ant little country” – or, actually, half that country?”

To take it further, how did that superpower do so, despite dropping close to 1 million tons of bombs on a much less advanced force? (Equipment and asset wise)

Looking through the lens of contemporary history, scholars and strategists consider Operation Rolling Thunder a failure, with masses of non-combatant civilian causalities sprinkled amongst the volumes of damage to Vietnamese infrastructure that did not deserve what it received. The North used this to their advantage, crafting potent anti-American propaganda messages that further painted US troops as a barbaric and unruly force worthy of Vietnamese hatred.

According to the CIA, there were 42,800 North Vietnamese civilian causalities between 1965 and 1967, which their report labels “small, however, in relation to the population of 19 million”. The number was anything but small for communist propaganda. (source)

The gradualism of the campaign was another significant point of critique. Stephen W. Wilson writes, “The existing military theory of gradualism, advanced by Gen. Maxwell Taylor, USA, held that an enemy’s actions could be controlled by the gradual application of force.” He then blames the failure of operation rolling thunder not on-air power, but as “a result of the decisions made by civilian and military leaders”. He then cites the brilliance of Clausewitz, claiming “gradualism was unsuccessful because it denied air power its inherent advantages of flexibility, surprise, and concentration of forces across time.” (source)

operation rolling thunder
Australians protesting the Vietnam War in 1966 (credit: wikicommons)


Viewing Operation Rolling Thunder through the eyes of a jaded cynic is like looking through a fortune teller’s orbuculum and seeing the Global War on Terror in its two-decade entirety.

The blunders and failures of the US, at every level of government, bred the Vietnam War, and cursed the wars to follow. The Great Wars had clarity in purpose, yet the Cold War failed to find it. At least, not in the same way.

Starting in 2001, the US once again launched a military campaign on a primitive in scope enemy force, with obscure and undefined end-goals and a drastic under-estimation of the oppositions will fight and endure despite facing overwhelming firepower.

Air support was once again a key part of the combined arms machine. For two decades, the US-led NATO coalition dropped bombs in dusty battlefields in the Middle East and Central Asia. Just like in Vietnam, warfare continued to evolve, and the villainous US military-industrial complex made advancements in technology in tandem with military operations. Battlefield catastrophes led to private-sector research, development, and profit.

Yet in the end, they lost. And now there lies similar confusion and pain amongst the veterans of the GWOT, as well as the civilians of Iraq and Afghanistan, who feel betrayed by the nation that promised them liberation from their captors.

Operation Rolling Thunder and the GWOT are similar in that regard. They are now lessons learned, with the latter still letting the dust settle as it enters the dreary and solemn realms of hindsight and introspection.

In the poetic and righteous words of the great Buffalo Springfield,

“There’s battle lines being drawn, and nobody’s right if everybody’s wrong.”


Ranger Regiment: Britain’s Future Soldiers

A spec inf Soldier takes a knee in front of an unmanned ground vehicle in the training area at Bovington Camp: Photographer Sgt Nick Johns RLC / MoD Crown

Background and Future Soldier Program

As part of the sweeping army reforms under the Integrated Review, the British Army has created a new expeditionary unit: The Rangers Regiment. As part of a larger “Future Solider” campaign, the Rangers will be operating under the 1,000 personnel strong Special Operations Brigade. The British Army hopes to fully deploy the Rangers by the end of 2022, and they are meant to replace the Specialised Infantry Group. The Future Soldier program hopes to integrate technical and cyber capabilities seamlessly into combat units and situations. (Source)

Brigadier Gus Fair, commander of the Rangers. Image via The Times UK

Tactics, Training, and Procedure

The Integrated Review has shown the UK’s commitment to modernization and cyber capabilities and the Ranger Regiment will be no different in terms of doctrine.

  • Taken from existing forces under the SIG, the Rangers are currently being recruited from the four current Specialised Infantry Battalions: 1 SCOTS (which will become 1st Battalion, Ranger Regiment), 2 PWRR, 2 LANCS, and 4 RIFLES (4th Battalion, Ranger Regiment). (Source)

  • First, the recruits must pass a “Cadre Course” which is a general aptitude test than anybody within the British Army can apply for.

  • Secondly, they go through a six week “Ranger Course.” This is more specialized and vague training, but what is known is it collaborative training with ally forces and can take place outside of the UK.

  • Finally, if these are passed, the recruit is placed in a Ranger Regiment and trains with their regiment for eight months before being given their metal patch and grey beret.

The role of a ranger is unique in a warfighting capacity. “Ranging” is a form of war in itself, and was first utilized in British battle doctrine in the French and Indian War (or Sevens Year War, 1754-1763) in North America. Notably, British soldier Robert Rogers produced the “28 Rules of Ranging” during this conflict. (Source)

The modern Ranger Regiment is sticking close to this doctrine of irregular combat, and introducing new technology with age-old warfighting practices – guerilla operations, deep forest reconnaissance, and hostile environment control.

Loadout and Technology

The Rangers are equipped and trained with top of the line reconnaissance devices and surveillance equipment, particularly the Puma drone. (Source) Rangers are equipped with SA-80 rifles and possibly MP5 submachine guns, but since they have not been deployed it is hard to gauge the weapons the battalions and teams will be using.

Image via The Times UK

Possible Operations and Capacity

It has been speculated the Ranger Regiment, once fully trained, could be deployed to Somalia and Mozambique in tandem with the Integrated Review-bred Security Force Assistance Brigade (SFAB) to provide security and reconnaissance abilities in those regions. (Source)

Ben Wallace, UK Secretary of State for Defence, said that the Ranger will be part of “active and engaged” Army, as well as interesting adding that Ranger Regiment has had considerable funds devoted to make them logistically independent, and can be deployed in teams as opposed to a whole force. (Source)

General Sir Nick Carter had this to add about the Ranger Regiment’s roles and capacity, “I think the roles, ultimately, will be open to anybody in the Armed Forces and certainly within the Army and their function will be very similar to US Green Berets who have over years provided that sort of capability.” (Source)


These “Future Soldiers”, hailing from a doctrine of old use the abundance of new technology and training to adequately mesh the two ideas into a new style of unconventional and irregular warfighting. The Rangers are still training, but by the end of 2022 the four 250 soldier strong battalions will most likely be deployed around the world.


Russia and Ukraine Escalation: Q1 Outlook

Ukrainian SOF operator before exercises

Tensions between Russia and Ukraine have remained high since the annexation of Crimea in 2014 [source]. Since then, Russia and Ukraine have signed multiple ceasefire agreements to prevent further conflict within the region. Throughout 2021, multiple ceasefire violations by both Russia and Ukraine were recorded, and satellite imagery shows a marked increase in Russian military build-up surrounding Ukraine. There is, therefore, concrete reason to believe that tensions are rising. As a result, this report considers how the situation will escalate over the next two months.

Graph showing Ceasefire violations in Donbas, 2018-present. There is a clear escalation throughout Q3-Q4 2021
(Img; Graph showing Ceasefire violations in Donbas, 2018-present. There is a clear escalation throughout Q3-Q4 2021; via USA Today)

Key Judgements

  • KJ-1 – Tensions between Russia and Ukraine continue to escalate rapidly during Q4 2021 and Q1 2022. Russia is almost certainly building its military presence at the border of Ukraine.

  • KJ-2 – There is a realistic possibility that Russia will begin a military offensive against Ukraine in the next two months.

  • KJ-3 – Russia is highly unlikely to be receptive to international peace discussions.

Military Build-Up

Tensions between Russia and Ukraine continue to escalate rapidly during Q4 2021 and Q1 2022. Russia is almost certainly building its military presence at the border of Ukraine. There are now around 100,000 Russian troops amassed at the border of Ukraine [source]. Such military build-up is clear from satellite imagery of Russian strongholds, currently stationed north, east, and south of Ukraine.

Satellite imagery showing military build-up surrounding Ukraine
(Img; Satellite imagery showing military build-up surrounding Ukraine; via BBC News)

In addition, on the Ukrainian border, Russia has 1,200 tanks and hundreds of other military vehicles stationed. Finally, Russia has some of the most advanced air defence systems of any nation, allowing a strategic advantage in the event of an offensive [source].

US military intelligence suggests Russia plans to rally a further 75,000 personnel in the coming months [source]. Ukrainian intelligence officers claim to have captured a Russian agent, claiming that Russia plans attacks in the Southern city of Odesa, Ukraine [source]. These reports are realistic as it is closer to existing Russian stations in Crimea, Donetsk, and Luhansk.

Current military build-up surrounding Ukraine as of January 7th
(Img; Current military build-up surrounding Ukraine as of January 7th; via NY Times)

An Imminent Offensive?

There is a realistic possibility that Russia will begin a military offensive against Ukraine in the next 2 months. Whilst its military build-up strongly suggests early signs of readying for a military offensive, this is more likely to occur in Q2 or Q3 2022.

There are multiple reasons that Russia may be delaying a military offensive. Whilst the current force of 100,000 to 175,000 troops would almost certainly overthrow Ukraine [source], the risk of a civilian uprising in Kyiv would require a much larger 325,000 personnel [source].  Civilian armed resistance to such an invasion is likely based on strong nationalism, instilled largely due to the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014 [source]. In addition, this year, the winter is particularly mild, meaning that there is still muddy quagmire conditions that make the movement of offensive vehicles challenging [source].

Russia will also face issues concerning its military abilities. Russia has a limited amphibious military ability [source]. Similarly, capturing the capital city, Kyiv, would require intervention with bordering Belarus due to logistic issues with traversing the Dnepr river [source].

Peace Negotiations

Russia is highly unlikely to be receptive to international peace discussions. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov stated on January 10th that there is no imminent plan for an offensive, explaining the increase in numbers on the Ukrainian border as “combat training […] being carried out within our national territory” [source]. This has been reiterated on multiple occasions by Moscow representatives during diplomatic negotiations.

US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman and Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov attend peace talks in Geneva
(Img; US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman and Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov attend peace talks in Geneva; via Defence News)

However, there is little progress towards a diplomatic conclusion following these statements and discussions [source]. Following talks with the US, Russian forced conducted a live-fire military exercise near the Ukrainian border, in apparent contravention of US demands [source]. Russia demands that Ukraine cannot join the NATO alliance, although NATO and Ukraine have countered that Russia cannot dictate these relations [source]. Further discussions are scheduled to take place on the 12th and 13th of January 2022, though Russia states there is “no reason for optimism” [source].


The political and military situation between Russia and Ukraine is volatile and may change rapidly. However, there is likely a delay in military action due to current conflict conditions. As a result, military action is more likely to happen in Q2-Q3 2022.

(Intelligence Cutoff Date: January 12th 2022 (GMT))


What’s next for the US-Japan security alliance

Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga with U.S. President Joe Biden, April 2021.


The US-Japan security alliance has been a cornerstone of American foreign policy in East Asia. When the alliance was first established, the US pledged to defend Japan from external forces after the Japanese 1947 constitution was adopted. This arrangement worked because it gave way to the Yoshida Doctrine, a strategy adopted by then Prime Minister Shigeru Yoshida, to ensure Japan can rebuild the country and its economy.

With tensions heightening due to the Chinese Civil War and Korean War, the Japanese Self-Defense Forces was established in 1954 despite strong opposition due to the presence of Article 9 in the constitution. In 1960, the U.S-Japan Security Treaty was revised to allow for American bases to be established. This was followed by the adoption of the Three Non-Nuclear Principles in 1967. This meant Japan will not possess, produce or introduce nuclear weapons of its own accord in order to avoid being targeted via nuclear attacks. The adoption of the principles meant that Japan relied on the US nuclear umbrella for protection.

Since the 1990s, Japan has strived to do its part in actively working together with the US on security challenges that affect East Asia as a whole.

Key Judgement 1

The US and Japan are highly likely to expand their defense cooperation to confront new security challenges in the region in the next 12 months.

  • The US and Japan began to work together in anti-missile defense after North Korea fired the Taepodong-1 in 1998 [source]. Tokyo reported the results of a feasability study for information gathering satellites to be launched after 2002 [source]. The event was troubling for Japan since the country did not have the resources allocated to conduct anti-ballistic missile surveillance after the US warned Japan about the launch.

  • China’s aggressiveness in its military budget, modernization of the People’s Liberation Army since the 1990s have brought concerns of its superpower ambitions [source].

  • From 2011, the Obama administration brought forth his “Pivot to Asia” policies, which involved building military and political ties with Asia-Pacific countries, including Japan [source]. This was followed by the reestablishment of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue or the Quad in 2017, which consists of Australia, India, Japan and the US [source].

  • Since 2015, the reinterpretation of Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution has given Tokyo legality to deploy the Japanese Self-Defense Forces and tackle gray zone tactics being used against the country and work alongside friendly countries in collective security situations. This would allow Japan to further contribute in the US-Japan security alliance.

Key Judgement 2

Japan is highly likely to contribute more to the security alliance in order to participate further in defensive collective security in the next 12 months

  • The 1st Gulf War brought debate on how Japan should contribute to help the coalition resist Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. This led to the passing of the International Peace Cooperation Act in June 1992, allowing the JSDF to participate in peacekeeping operations when the first JSDF units were deployed in Cambodia under UNTAC [source].

  • Japanese guidelines passed in 1997 stipulated that the JSDF can operate from domestic soil to surrounding areas in case of an enemy attack [source]. This was perceived by some observers as Japan willing to take the resposbility of defending its territory.

  • In November 2001, the JMSDF deployed ships to the Indian Ocean to provide logistical assistance to American-led military operations in Afghanistan through the Anti-Terrorism Special Measures Law [source]. This was the first time the JSDF was deployed overseas during a military operation.

  • In 2015, Article 9 was given another interpretation to allow JSDF forces to be deployed overseas for collective security purposes while staying within the limits of the clause [source].

Key Judgment 3

The US and Japan are highly likely to rebalance cost-sharing with Japan on maintaining United States Force Japans units after President Donald Trump pushed US allies to contribute more to the alliance in the next 12 months

  • It is unclear on the actual cost of maintaining USFJ forces in Japan. This depends on which costs are factored in and is subject to changes.

  • President Biden extended the cost-sharing agreement following previous demands from the Trump administration for Japan to pay up to 8 billion dolllars [source].

  • In December 2021, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida announced an increase of Japanese defense spending. This will start from April 1, 2022 will rise 1.1% to 5.4 trillion yen ($47.18 billion) [source]. This was an indication that Japan is willing to do its part to maintain the alliance from a financial perspective.

Above Top secret: What Lies Beyond the Cloaked

Above top secret clearances are an enigma. They seem fascinating and spooky, yet are not as substantive as spy thrillers and espionage films may convey. They exist, yet they don’t. A topic as grey as the content the public commonly assumes falls under it.

Security clearances and classified information designators can confuse simply standing alone. Introducing them at an international scale muddies the waters as nation-states all have their own separate ways of dealing with sensitive information, and that is without going into the crossover with alliances and multi-lateral organizations that require them – NATO, Five Eyes, etc. – and the tightly locked manifold systems that deal with information in oppressive countries, such as North Korea and China.

Along the road to above top secret reside a few landmarks to visit, intending to provide a refresher on information security, including the various levels, moving from public information to top-secret (and beyond…)

Information in the public sphere

Everyone has their secrets. Governments, technology companies, intelligence agencies… all of which are examples of entities that possess information that could be sensitive, at the lowest point of the security chain. That chain is an ad hoc hierarchal structure that differs from organizations and governments but has the same relative conceptual meaning across the board.

At the lowest point of the chain, you have publicly available information, such as government or NGO reports. That information is approved for public consumption and omits any content that could be “sensitive”. Not that “all” publicly available information is meant to be accessed or released – the OSINT community thrives off such things, and websites like WikiLeaks have more than made their mark in the realm of leaks, providing an ample platform for whistleblower celebrities like Edward Snowden, and Chelsea Manning.   

Sensitive information

 Beyond public information is when you get into security territory, starting with sensitive and going up to the fabled “above top-secret”.

 Of course, the definition of what “sensitive” means can be a bit more abstract.

Most governments and organizations label sensitive information as information that could have negative ramifications if it is released to the public or falls into the wrong hands. The US government’s National Institute of Standards and Technology considers it information that “the loss, misuse, or unauthorized access to or modification of, that could adversely affect the national interest or the conduct of federal programs.” (source)   

Sensitive information does not require a clearance per se, but relevant entities hold the groups responsible for its dissemination and storage to a high standard of professional responsibility. One example of this type of information is documents with the “For Official use Only” (FOUO) designator. In layperson’s terms, that means “this isn’t classified, but it wouldn’t be that cool if you shared it outside the workplace”.

In the US, they do not protect sensitive information in the same way as classified information, until it receives that designation from Congress.

Classified information

Classified information is where information is locked behind a metaphorical government paywall. The US and the UK are not the “end all be all” of how things are done, but as mentioned earlier, are the general standard most of the world follows. The governments in both nations (as an example) are the entities that control the classification and declassification of information. Upon receiving a classification, the various ranking structures kick in, regarding who has access (and leading to above top-secret).

The US Department of Energy defines it as “Certain information requiring protection against unauthorized disclosure in the interests of national defence and security or foreign relations of the United States pursuant to Federal statute or Executive order. The term includes Restricted Data, Formerly Restricted Data, and National Security Information.”

Within that are some general categories. The structure in the US and UK is: (source)

  • Confidential/Restricted: information that could have negative ramifications towards national security but not at the same level as the latter two designations. In the UK, restricted information has a “need to know” clause, meaning its only handler should be someone with proper qualifications. (source) The bulk of information within this category involves individual people.

  • Secret: information that could be expected to cause serious damage to national security, if improperly disclosed. Examples are military maps, trade secrets, various military reports, and personal information about covert informants or sources.

  • Top Secret: the highest of the general classifications. This is information that could cause “exceptionally grave damage to the national security.” (source) Examples are planning documents for military operations, maps of nuclear weapon storage sites, and sensitive diplomatic cables.

Classified information is stored and maintained adjacent to its designation. Governments store secret and Top Secret information in specific storage containers, in highly controlled areas. Sensitive compartmented information facilities (SCIF) are used within the US as a way for users with the proper clearance to sort through and process this type of information. (source)

above top secret
Example of a cover sheet for classified information in the US (wikicommons)

Security Clearances

Security clearances are rather cut and dry with the classified information designators in mind. The relevant entities can award clearances to both government and non-government employees after a rigorous vetting system and background checks. The higher the clearance, the most that goes into the investigation, and they pull the deeper layers back.

For instance, it is common for applicants to have their credit history checked in search of any substantial debt. That isn’t just to make sure they are the best with finances, but mostly to search for any potential leverage a foreign agent or bad actor could use against them in exchange for national security related information. The basic clearances in the US are: Confidential, Secret, and Top Secret (TS).

And then you have what lies beyond…

above top secret
Former President Barack Obama authorizing a military action in Libya while in a makeshift SCIF in Brazil (wikicommons)

Above Top Secret

Classification and clearance levels above top secret are rather ambiguous. Partially because there are limitations to public knowledge on the inner workings of governments (to a certain degree), but also because the term “above top secret” is a vast generalization for a variety of off-shoots from the three major categories. It makes sense to hear its use in the public, to make it easier for media outlets to cite concepts that are a bit more nuanced, or not so much common knowledge.

The information that above top-secret clearances protect is very specific, and would likely fall under the TS conceptual umbrella, meaning its information with the potential for grave consequences to national security or individuals.

 Before going further into it, there is a rather important caveat to address regarding above top secret clearances: they don’t really exist, or at least not the way Hollywood makes them seem.

Information that goes beyond TS doesn’t require a special clearance, rather special access. A few examples are:

  • Special Access Program (SAPs): SAPs are compartmentalized information that has substantial levels of security and safeguards protecting it. They can be both publicly acknowledged yet classified, or unacknowledged and limited to the involved members. SAPs commonly fall under the intelligence community umbrella, but also involve research and development (think DARPA).

  • Black projects/black budget: these are SAPs that are commonly dramatized as things of the above top secret nature. Black budgets and projects are highly classified, and like SAPs, fall primarily under the intelligence community or military umbrella. Examples of projects are stealth aircraft, advanced weapons systems, and highly sensitive special operations (source)

  • Sensitive Compartmented Information (SCI): SCI clearances can be given to individuals who are not permanently assigned to one. The common term “read in only” is used for this type of access. Someone with a secret clearance could be read into a TS briefing or piece of information for a specific period with an SCI, without having to be a card-carrying member.  (source)

  • Q Clearance: The US Department of Energy has its own unique designations for special access clearances dealing with highly sensitive energy information, such as nuclear weapon schematics or access, among other areas. Someone possessing a Q Clearance has special access to such information and has likely gone through a highly rigorous background check and process. Q Clearances have entered the current cultural zeitgeist thanks to the QAnon conspiracy that was birthed during the Trump era.

  • Cosmic/ATOMAL Top Secret: NATO has its own system of security classifications, and COSMIC TOP SECRET and ATOMAL are the highest of their kind. Information at this level is not only highly sensitive but could have grave ramifications to NATO, meaning not just one nation but many. ATOMAL has overlap with Q Clearances in the US and deals with space and energy related matters.

  • YANKEE WHITE: it isn’t as sexy as the rest, and is unique to the US, but YANKEE WHITE clearance holders are anyone near the President, including administrative and logistical staff.