A top American 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.
Intelligence agencies were widely criticized for overestimating the “will to fight” of the Afghan military, which collapsed as US forces were withdrawing from the country, and for underestimating the ability of Ukraine to hold off Russia’s invasion.
But Defense Intelligence Agency Director Scott Berrier told an audience earlier this week that he was confident the assessment of China’s growing military ‘might’ would hit the mark.
During a talk at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, he said:
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.
“I think we’re taking a different view of this. 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,” Lieutenant General Berrier added.
American officials have been increasingly concerned about China’s military modernization efforts, especially given intelligence suggesting the People’s Liberation Army or PLA is under orders to be ready to take Taiwan by force as early as 2025.
Last month’s annual China Military Power Report from the Pentagon warned that the country’s nuclear arsenal was growing faster than expected.
It also revealed that Beijing was looking to expand its conventional missile forces while continuing to grow its navy and improve its aerial capabilities.
But while these developments 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 in October, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
On Wednesday, Berrier stressed it was clear that some of China’s military goals remained aspirational. Yet, he cautioned that Beijing has been watching 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 the Indo-Pacific region, whatever, however, that may unfold.”
Current and former American 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, a former director of national intelligence, speaking at a virtual event hosted by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in 2022. He added:
We underestimated the will to fight of the Taliban and overestimated the will to fight of the Afghan military and the viability of its government. 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.
Jeff Seldin is Voice of America’s National Security Correspondent, tracking developments in intelligence, counterterrorism, and cyber since 2015 after a stint covering the Pentagon.
The views and opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the official policy of China Factor.