US spy chiefs defend Russia-Ukraine intelligence, say China is even tougher to assess

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US spy masters drew criticism at a Senate hearing on Tuesday for failing to predict the poor showing of the Russian military in Ukraine and vastly underestimating the willingness of the Afghan military to fight after the US withdrew in August.

While members of the Senate Armed Services Committee acknowledged that the Central Intelligence Agency, Defence Intelligence Agency and other spy agencies did well predicting Russia’s invasion, they fell short on other counts. These included overrating Russian morale, training, doctrine and the quality of its non-commissioned officers – and underestimating the resolve of Ukrainian forces to fight back on home territory.

“Certainly the Russian overestimation of Russian capability was an issue,” said Lieutenant General Scott Berrier, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency. “Those are the intangibles that we’ve got to be able to get our arms around as an intelligence community to really understand.”

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At one point, the exchange grew heated when Senator Angus King, an independent from Maine, pushed the witnesses on why they predicted that Kyiv would fall quickly, the Russia-Ukraine war would be over in 14 days and the Afghan army would hold out for up to a year. Kabul fell within days, while the war in Ukraine has lasted for nearly 12 weeks with analysts predicting a long, violent slog ahead.

Lieutenant General Scott Berrier, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, testifies during a Senate Armed Services committee hearing on Tuesday. Photo: AP
Lieutenant General Scott Berrier, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, testifies during a Senate Armed Services committee hearing on Tuesday. Photo: AP

“I hope that the intelligence community is doing some soul-searching about how to better get a handle on that,” King said. “The intelligence community needs to do a better job on this issue.”

Berrier responded: “I think the intelligence community did a great job on this issue.”

“How can you possibly say that when we were told explicitly Kyiv would fall in three days and Ukraine would fall in two weeks?” King fired back. “You’re telling me that was accurate intelligence?”

The spy chiefs said morale, the will to fight and the internal workings of generally secretive military organisations were far more difficult to assess from the outside than are the number of planes, tanks and bullets on which their analysis often rests.

“It’s a combination of will to fight and capacity and effect,” said Avril Haines, head of the director of national intelligence. “And the two of them are issues that are, as you indicated, quite challenging to provide effective analysis on and we’re looking at different methodologies for doing so.”

Window for possible PLA attack on Taiwan ‘unpredictable’, US admiral says

While the intelligence heads acknowledged that their services faced many of the same challenges in assessing the inner workings of China’s People’s Liberation Army, they said the PLA was a significantly more difficult, challenging and capable opponent. “I think China is a formidable adversary,” Berrier said.

Officials said one way to have better insight was to gather intelligence from allies and partners who may have better or different knowledge of operations in China, Russia, North Korea and Iran, among others.

Analysts said the Russian military appeared to face limited public scrutiny, criticism or the sort of external checks and balances that can help address intelligence shortcomings. The US military’s interest in pumping up adversaries’ abilities in order to justify its budgets can also add to US intelligence shortfalls, they added.

China is learning some “interesting lessons” from Ukraine, including the importance of small-unit tactics, leadership and effective use of the right weapons systems, the spy chiefs said on Tuesday, adding that they did not believe Beijing would take advantage of global distraction over the Ukraine war to invade Taiwan, or was in a rush.

Beijing, which considers Taiwan a renegade province o be reunified by force if necessary, would rather take over the island without using the army but is building its military prowess in hopes of prevailing even if the US got involved, they said.

“It’s our view that they are working hard to effectively put themselves into a position in which their military is capable of taking Taiwan over our intervention,” Haines said.

While Beijing has a reputation for eschewing transparency, the PLA does engage in self-reflection, although not necessarily in testimony before the National People’s Congress, said Dennis Blasko, author of The Chinese Army Today.

“The Chinese are actually very open about their shortcomings,” Blasko said. “They acknowledge and call it the ‘peace disease’, for example, that they have not had a major war in over 40 years. They say that some units don’t train well and some leaders are not well equipped.”

Blasko added that self-criticism, largely confined to the Chinese-language press, has increased under President Xi Jinping as the PLA attempts to improve its capabilities and ultimately match US military strength.

On Tuesday, the spy agencies also faced criticism over intelligence leaks that indicated Ukraine had sunk the Moskva, Russia’s Baltic Sea flagship, and killed at least eight Russian generals with the help of US intelligence.

“I’m concerned about the leaks … alerting the Russians, what we know, perhaps, how we know it, and also feeding Vladimir Putin’s paranoia about conflict with the West,” said King.

On other fronts, Berrier and Haines expressed concern about Beijing’s rapid nuclear weapons build-up. They also acknowledged that deterrence did not work in preventing Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24 and expressed hope that more effective tactics would deter Beijing from any Taiwan invasion.

“We’re not really sure what lessons Xi Jinping is taking away from this conflict right now, we would hope that they would be they would be the right ones,” said Berrier. “But I think it’s going to take some time to sort out whether or not he believes this is a window or that his timeline would extend.”

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