When Russia sent military forces into Syria last weekend, it caught NATO by surprise and proved that its members can neither stay ahead of threats nor even decide which ones are the most pressing, the alliance’s intelligence director said.
“Are we keeping up with threats?…Absolutely not,” said U.S. Navy Rear Adm. Brett Heimbigner Thursday. “The demands for intelligence… to accurately deal with some of these crises is clearly insufficient.”
Heimbigner’s latest frustration: “From an alliance perspective, what Russia is doing and the ability of Russia to surprise us on a very consistent basis.”
“We were able to get some warning, but did not see from a strategic perspective that one, necessarily, coming until just a couple days ago,” he said, speaking at the Intelligence and National Security Summit in Washington, D.C. Defense One is a media sponsor of the event, which is held by AFCEA International and the Intelligence and National Security Alliance, or INSA.
On the mainstage later, Defense Intelligence Agency Director Lt. Gen. Vincent Stewart confirmed media reports that Russian forces had moved into Syria, but he and CIA Director John Brennan said they were yet unclear as to their makeup or purpose.
Brennan spoke calmly of the development and was quick to say that throughout the Syrian conflict Russia has remained cooperative on other security areas, including the spread of terrorists outside of the region.
“I and others have spoken to our Russian counterparts about our shared concerns,” he said.
As for NATO, Heimbigner described an alliance divided: its Baltic and eastern members worry more about Russia, while southern members are more concerned about the Islamic State, whose “growth is exponentially higher than what they anticipated.”
“In fact, we are now in a situation where, as an alliance, we can’t even come up with a coordinated threat assessment overall” because both groups want their concerns to take priority, he said.
One problem, Heimbigner said, is there are not enough intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets to go around: “We have a woeful shortage of ISR. When we go to ask the nations to contribute, it’s all committed and just not available.”
It may turn out two conflicts become one, with Russia’s move into Syria and the flow of refugees from the Middle East. “My southern flank is the Turkish border, and I’m very concerned that’s something we’re going to have to address in the near term,” he said.