How Russia’s War Revealed a Blind Spot in American Intelligence

For the past three-quarters of a century, the American intelligence community has had one job more important than all others: assessing the capabilities of the Russian military. In all that time, the most significant troop deployments are what we’ve seen over the past month, as part of the invasion of Ukraine.

Although US intelligence understood a lot about this war, like most countries in the world, we are surprised that Russia has not been significantly successful in achieving its original goals. since the current campaign started on February 24th.

Many (including those in Moscow, based on the current logistical problems facing Russian forces) had expected Russia to quickly gain air and sea supremacy, which would bring gives Russia a great advantage in pursuing land objectives.

Obviously, that didn’t happen. More than a month after the invasion, Russia still has not achieved air superiority, most of its main ground attacks have stalled, and Russian troops have been pushed back in key locations, including even around the outskirts of Kyiv. There are rumors that Russia will downsize its military goals.

This begs the question: If the intelligence community is successful in predicting the invasion, as well as key Russian tactics, how did the intelligence community get to the core question that is Is the focus of their mission so wrong?

Or did it?

Sources close to senior members of the Biden national security team say there isn’t too much misinformation in the West about Russia’s capabilities, as the response by Ukraine and the NATO alliance has been much more effective than expected. Some in the administration also believe that the real problem is not Western intelligence at work, but rather Russia’s missteps – from underestimating Ukraine and the West’s responses to the invasion. strategy, to a current Russian plan. is considered a profound misconception.

“Many experts believe that the false expectations of many in the West are based on what is seen as a major long-term blind spot for intelligence organizations. They are not very good at judging the invisible…”

General Mark Hertling, a former commander of US forces in Europe, commented: “The failure of our intelligence was not due to Russia’s ability but rather to the fact that the Russian government and military have become useless and incompetent. and how terrible the corruption…was beyond any of our wildest dreams. Hertling added that among those who predicted the poor performance of the Russians and the effectiveness of the Ukrainians were military experts who pay close attention to issues such as training, treatment of conscripts, the quality of non-commissioned officers and other factors, for those who are “well-versed in matters such as training, exercises, operational art, tactics, and leadership.”

Having said that, many experts believe that the false expectations of many in the West are based on what is seen as a major long-term blind spot for intelligence organizations. They are not very good at gauging the invisible – whether they care about the will of the Ukrainian people (or the lack of Russian fighters), the arrogance of Moscow or the level of inferiority. The ranks of the superpower’s military leaders are dwindling.

Former Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, Admiral James Stavridis said, “It is relatively easy to measure the difficulty indicators of war – how far the missile fires, how fast the missile strikes, how hard it is. armor on the tank. It’s a lot harder to measure what’s in the human heart – the fighting spirit of the Ukrainians, the weak morale of the Russians, the depth of corruption in the Russian arms industry. ”

Starvidis added: “But the intelligence community needs to re-examine its assessments over the past decade or so of Russia’s capabilities – with an eye toward measuring what’s in the human heart. as well as they assess the hard realities of weapon systems. It is a much more difficult task, but successfully doing it is vital to our national security. ”

Intelligence community leaders agree with this assessment.

Former President of the National Intelligence Council Gregory Treverton described the importance of responding to this challenge: “The most important thing in actual combat is the invisible stuff: how good their soldiers are. and importantly, how prepared they are to fight… In the case of both Iraq and Afghanistan, what looked like the formidable forces we had trained had just melted away. They don’t fight. In Ukraine, it seems that many [Russian] Conscripts don’t know why they’re fighting, and maybe even where they are. We used to say during the Cold War that if war broke out on the central front, we would learn a lot in the first hour about these invisible things. I think that’s the main story here, but I’ve also thought for a long time that the Russian military – given the country’s economy – must be a lot thinner than is commonly assessed. ”

Former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper has been thinking a lot about this issue for “over 50 years”.

Clapper argues: “Neither intelligence nor the military have been successful in assessing the invisibility of the ‘will to fight’. Clapper illustrated this view by remarking that in Southeast Asia, “We underestimated the ‘will to fight’ of the Viet Cong/North Vietnamese, and conversely overestimated the ‘will to fight’ “of the South Vietnamese” and that we made similar mistakes in Iraq and Afghanistan, underestimating the enemy’s will to fight and overestimating the will of our allies.

In Ukraine, Clapper asserts, “We overestimated the Russians’ ‘will to fight’ and underestimated the ‘will to fight’ of the Ukrainians. Some of this comes from the decades-long reshuffle of the Russian military (better equipped we can count and measure), and the lackluster performance of the Ukrainians in 2014. However, those are just side factors, not the real explanation. When the Russians actually embarked on a major real-world military campaign, all of their weaknesses became apparent – poor leadership, poor logistics, poor command and control, poor planning and execution. Poor planning – all of which affect the will of individual soldiers and their units to fight. organized into. ”

Clapper suggests that similar challenges exist when assessing what constitutes a motivated and effective fighting force. “If there is an ideology, a story that warriors really believe in, they will fight – individually and in groups. What our historical customers and now Russians have in common is that there is no reason they will understand and trust them.”

As a result, Clapper, like other experts I spoke with, believes that “it is impossible to predict in advance how an individual or unit-level fighting force will perform in combat. There is an old look in intelligence on the difference between secret and mystery. Secrets are known, ultimately collectible, facts. Mysteries are abstract things that no one knows. Normally, the IC (intelligence community) is said to ‘know’ both with equal clarity. IC is not clairvoyance. ‘Fighting Will’ belongs to the mystery genre. What the IC should always do when asked to make such judgments is to make judgments, which can change when two fighting forces collide. Until then, consider our review with a grain of salt. And, if we could, we would have figured this out a long time ago. I know; I tried. ”

In an excellent work for Atlantic, Phillips Payson O’Brien of the University of St. Andrew of Scotland tries to locate where so many analysts have gone wrong. He reached the same conclusion with many of the experts I spoke with, but added that overemphasizing the quality of military technology and equipment was also a trap. You must analyze not only its equipment and doctrine, he writes, but also its capacity for complex operations, its unscientific but important logistical needs and structures, and its commitment to soldiers fight and die in the particular war being waged.”

An unwritten but important aspect of this view is that both the overestimation of the enemy’s capabilities and the value of modern weapons systems serve the interests of the “military-industrial complex”. ” that President Dwight Eisenhower – the American president best understood about modernity. war — warned. Such views lead to larger defense budgets where careful analysis of factors such as those cited above can have the opposite effect.

Of course, until we can better assess all the factors involved in assessing the capabilities of both our allies and enemies, the main conclusion we can draw is that they We need to focus more on both the mundane, like training and logistics, and on the intangibles. such as fighting will, ability and spirit. We also need to be a lot more humble.

As the famous military theorist Carl Von Khoanwitz wrote in 1832 his book War: “Many intelligence reports in war are contradictory, even more false, and most are uncertain. What one might reasonably ask of an officer is that he must have a standard standard of judgment, which he can attain only from the knowledge of men’s actions and things, and of common sense.” How Russia’s War Revealed a Blind Spot in American Intelligence

Russell Falcon

Russell Falcon is a Interreviewed U.S. News Reporter based in London. His focus is on U.S. politics and the environment. He has covered climate change extensively, as well as healthcare and crime. Russell Falcon joined Interreviewed in 2023 from the Daily Express and previously worked for Chemist and Druggist and the Jewish Chronicle. He is a graduate of Cambridge University. Languages: English. You can get in touch with me by emailing:

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