By Julian Barnes May 1, 2016
The U.S. has too few intelligence assets focused on the threat from Russia and should concentrate its technical capabilities on Moscow’s growing military might, NATO’s departing supreme allied commander said.
The U.S. has begun to build up the number of intelligence analysts examining Russia, which stood at 13,000 at the height of the Cold War before dipping to a low point of just 1,000 three years ago, said Gen. Philip Breedlove, the top military commander of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, in an interview.
But Gen. Breedlove said the U.S. needs more technical intelligence assets, the kind of spy satellites the U.S. uses to keep an eye on both troop movements and terrorist training camps, focused on the threat from Russia.
“We see that Russia has not accepted the hand of partnership but has chosen a path of belligerence,” Gen. Breedlove said. “We need to readdress where we’re heading.”
Gen. Breedlove will step down this month after three years in the top military job at NATO, a time in which he has overseen the transformation of the alliance from one focused on expeditionary capabilities, like in Afghanistan, to the defense of Europe in the face of renewed aggression from Russia.
Gen. Breedlove spent a large portion of his military career in Europe, beginning as a young captain and returning as a four-star general to lead first the U.S. Air Force in Europe and then all of NATO’s forces.
Since the Russian annexation of Crimea, Gen. Breedlove has been an outspoken voice on the dangers of what he calls a revanchist Russia, repeatedly warning in speeches and congressional testimony about Russian aggression in Ukraine and the dangers of failing to respond.
Gen. Breedlove is one of the prime architects of the American response, which involved reinforcing Eastern Europe quickly with a small number of U.S. troops and working over time to help build consensus for a larger plan to build a more robust, 4,000-person NATO force on the alliance’s Baltic Sea.
This week, Gen. Breedlove will be succeeded by Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti, the current commander of U.S. Forces in Korea and a former senior commander in Afghanistan. Though Gen. Scaparotti was critical in his predecessor’s congressional testimony about Russia’s challenge to NATO, some officials say they think he will prove to be less outspoken than Gen. Breedlove.
Gen. Breedlove said he took his post assuming Russia would be a partner, not a competitor. Still, his first moves as the NATO commander were to refocus the alliance on so-called “collective defense,” increasing the number of exercises focused on defending against a more capable enemy.
When he arrived in the job as both the U.S. European commander and NATO’s top military leader, the alliance was coming off more than a decade fighting in Afghanistan. With the number of international troops in Afghanistan falling rapidly, Gen. Breedlove made the decision to refocus the alliance’s exercises on more technologically advanced threats.
“We decided we would build an exercise regime that would focus on large collective operations and regaining that collective defense capability,” Gen. Breedlove said. “Turned out it was prescient.”
In the wake of Russia’s stealthy invasion and annexation of Crimea, the U.S. intelligence community, in particular military intelligence came under withering criticism for having failed to adequately warn policy makers and military leaders.
Intelligence officials dispute the fact that they failed to warn that Russian President Vladimir Putin had designs on Crimea. But officials don’t dispute that during the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, intelligence resources were refocused on the threat of terrorism.
“We weren’t focused on Russia when I came in three years ago because we were still trying to cast a paradigm that brought Russia into the fold of Western values,” Gen. Breedlove said. “Russia chose a different path or they were on that path and we didn’t recognize it.”
Russian officials have repeatedly said it is NATO and the U.S. that have been the aggressors, expanding the alliance to Russia’s borders, and militarizing the Baltic region. Russian officials said Gen. Breedlove, along with other NATO officials, have exaggerated the threat from Russia.
Robert Work, the deputy secretary of defense, said in an interview that it isn’t just intelligence experts but policy makers too that misjudged Russia. Had Russian intentions been understood, the U.S. would never have pulled its heavy combat brigades out of Europe in 2012, he said.
“It caught the entire policy community by surprise. It is clear Russia has embarked on a much more provocative and aggressive path since 2012. We are now in process to responding,” Mr. Work said Friday, just before a visit with Gen. Breedlove.
Rep. Devin Nunes (R., Calif.), the chairman of the House intelligence committee, has emerged as a tough critic of the failure to redirect enough intelligence resources toward the challenge of Russia.
Russia’s 2008 invasion of Georgia, he said, should have been a warning sign. After the failure to anticipate the Crimea annexation, far more resources should have been directed at the threat of Russia. Instead, the Russian military intervention in Syria took U.S. policy makers by surprise.
“In its totality, it is the largest intelligence failure since 9/11,” Rep. Nunes said.
Gen. Breedlove said the U.S. had made a reasonable choice to focus its limited intelligence assets on the threat of terrorism. The intelligence community has adjusted by increasing analysts and refocusing on the threat from Russia’s military, he said. The question now, he said, is whether that is enough.
Gen. Breedlove said the U.S. is now wrestling with whether to focus more reconnaissance satellites and other assets on Russian military moves. He said he advocates increased investment in such assets as well as devoting more to keeping watch on Russia.
“What we need to look at now is do we need a refocusing or reallocation … of the technical capabilities,” he said.
Gen. Breedlove said, however, it is important to remember that the Russian military isn’t overpowering.
“We need to be careful not paint them as 10 feet tall because they’re not, and if we overstate, then we lose credibility,” Gen. Breedlove said. “But I’ve also said they may not be 10 feet tall but they’re pretty close to 7 feet tall. Russia has proved itself to be a learning and adaptive military force.”