A top U.S. intelligence official is confident his agency will not fall victim to the same mistakes that allowed the United States to misjudge the military will of allies and adversaries in recent years.
U.S. intelligence has been widely criticized for overestimating the “will to fight” of the Afghan military, which collapsed as U.S. forces were withdrawing from the country, and for underestimating the ability of Ukrainian forces to hold off the Russian invasion.
But Defense Intelligence Agency Director Scott Berrier told an audience Wednesday that he was confident the assessment of China’s growing military would hit the mark.
“With the growth of the PRC [People’s Republic of China] military across all spectrums, we have had our eye on this for the last five or six years with a high degree of intensity,” he said during a talk at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
“I think we’re taking a different view of this,” he said. “We know that they are pulling together a lot of capabilities … so we have to watch them very, very carefully as they continue to grow and develop.”
U.S. officials have been increasingly concerned about China’s military modernization efforts, especially given intelligence suggesting the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is under orders to be ready to take Taiwan by force as early as 2025.
The Pentagon’s annual China Military Power Report, issued last month, warned that China’s nuclear arsenal was growing faster than expected. It further warned that China was looking to expand its conventional missile forces, while continuing to grow its navy and improve its aerial capabilities.
But while Beijing’s capabilities are significant, there are questions about how the PLA would fare in an actual conflict. The last time Chinese forces saw combat was in 1979 against Vietnam.
China’s forces “still have a long way to go in terms of having the level of military capability that we judge that they think that they need to advance their global security and economic interests,” a senior defense official said last month, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss the assessment.
Berrier said Wednesday that it was clear that some of China’s military goals remained aspirational. However, he cautioned that Beijing has been watching recent conflicts, like Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and learning.
“What we’re seeing on the Russian side is, ‘Hey, get in that tank and go.’ There’s really not a whole lot of training,” he said. “That is not the way to do it. And so, I think the Chinese are also taking lessons from this … thinking through what a potential scenario would be in warfare in the Indo-Pacific region, whatever, however that may unfold.”
Current and former U.S. intelligence officials have long said assessing a military’s will to fight is one of their more problematic tasks.
“It has always been a difficult problem,” said James Clapper, former director of national intelligence, speaking at a virtual event hosted by the Washington-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in 2022.
“We underestimated will to fight of the Taliban and overestimated the will to fight of the Afghan military and the viability of its government,” he added. “We did it again with Ukraine and Russia. … The bottom line should be: When combat is joined, all bets are off.”
Berrier has publicly admitted his skepticism about Ukraine’s readiness to take on Russia was “a bad assessment.”
On Wednesday, he said in the case of Russia, intelligence analysts focused too heavily on Moscow’s improved military hardware and failed to see gaps in training and leadership.
“Honestly, through years of counterterrorism analysis and operations, we kind of took our eye off the ball,” he said.