Overestimation in Intelligence: The Overestimation of Russia’s Armed Forces

General George S. Patton, one of the most revered military commanders by the U.S. public, once was quoted as saying “You shouldn’t underestimate the enemy, but it is just as fatal to overestimate him”. Whatever’s one thoughts on Patton are, surely this quote resonates with many in the 2022 Ukraine-Russia War and the American response to this conflict.

The term near peer adversary, meaning “[a] people or organizations that are very similar is nearly equal”, is often thrown out when discussing the military, defense, and overall combat capabilities of both the Russian Federation or the Chinese Communist Party. The U.S. Armed Service and the Department of Defense (DoD) all have frequently referred to Russia as being a near-peer adversary in officially released publications, news articles, and various other media.

In May of 2018 and March of 2020, the DoD released news articles in which both times, senior civilian officials (the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering and the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness) identified Russia as a near-peer adversary. Senior uniformed service officers, including Lieutenant General Eric Wesley of Army Futures Command, General Eric Scapparotti of U.S. European Command and Major General Bo Dyess of the Army Capabilities Integration Center, all worked strongly to direct new technologies and abilities against Russian and Chinese forces. The Director of National Intelligence, Avril Haines, has also in the past described Russia in the context of a near-peer adversary. It was also reported by multiple news outlets that the United States had been adjusting their tactical and strategic plans to better combat Russia. Besides a few outliers, many perceived Russia as being a very real military threat to the United States.

Clearly, the U.S. Armed Forces believed that Russia was a near-peer adversary and one of the two largest defense and national security threats to the United States and the globe. This, however, is facing increased scrutiny in the aftermath of the Ukraine crisis. Russia lacks the logistical capabilities necessary to conduct an invasion, have encountered extreme difficulties in establishing air superiority, and this in turn has encouraged serious morale issues for frontline Russian troops. This was a rather shocking surprise for virtually all Americans, both those informed and uninformed on foreign and military policy.

In Congressional testimony on 29 March, Air Force General Tod Wolters, Commanding General of U.S. European Command, was asked “if there was an intelligence gap that caused the US to overestimate Russia’s strength and underestimate the Ukrainian defenses” to which Wolters responded “There could be… As we’ve always done in the past, when this crisis is over with, we will accomplish a comprehensive after-action review in all domains and in all departments and find out where our weak areas were and make sure we can find ways to improve, and this could be one of those areas”.

This case is a prime example of the dangers in overestimating an enemy force. While this instance of overestimation did not produce harm in the way of causing the loss of territory or manpower, it does still negatively impact the United States. The February 1967 issue of Military Review features an essay by retired U.S. Army Colonel Irving Heymont titled “What is the Threat?” in which Heymont writes, “It is equally as dangerous to overestimate the enemy’s capabilities as it is to underestimate them because overestimates do not necessarily lead to insurance and safety. The enemy can hardly meet all of the competing demands for resources. It is unrealistic to assume that he will use a disproportionate share to counter one threat at the expense of neglecting other threats and sacrificing other significant capabilities…The enemy cannot be certain of our decisions or which capability we will exercise and to what degree. Overestimating enemy capabilities leads to pricing of important policy objectives out of the market and to strategies of desperation”.

Furthermore, overestimated intelligence estimates or views, on a consistent basis, can result in problems in developing a solid military tactic or strategy in response to the crisis or event. As well, it looks negatively upon the analysis and assessments performed by the IC, which could portray the organizations as being overly cautious, fearful, or unnecessarily concerned with America’s power and standing in the globe.

While the U.S. did overestimate the Russian Federation and provide them with more credit than they were due, the Intelligence Community (IC) did successfully predict the invasion of Ukraine by Russia, arguably wounding Russia’s ability to conduct military operations. Nonetheless, the U.S. still overestimated their enemy, which is just as bad as underestimating an enemy force. However, some academics and even top officials in the U.S. Air Force, have continued to see Russia as a near peer adversary.

Yet, this is not the total view of the U.S. military. Politico reported in early March that the DoD, pressured by the Biden administration, was “delaying and revisiting its National Defense Strategy, the blueprint for how the Pentagon will meet immediate and long-term security challenges, as the U.S. and its allies scramble to respond to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the threat Moscow poses to Eastern European countries”. Weeks later, on 28 March, the DoD released a classified report to Congress which, according to some DoD senior personnel interviewed by Foreign Policy magazine “describe Russia as a serious near-term threat but a challenge that cannot threaten the United States in the long term”. The declassified version will not be available for some weeks, but a fact sheet provided by the DoD does mention that the Department’s priorities include “Deterring aggression, while being prepared to prevail in conflict when necessary, prioritizing the PRC challenge in the Indo-Pacific, then the Russia challenge in Europe” in addition to calling out the Russian Federation specifically, saying the nation-state “poses acute threats, as illustrated by its brutal and unprovoked invasion of Ukraine… [the U.S. must] collaborate with our NATO Allies and partners to reinforce robust deterrence in the face of Russian aggression”.

Overestimation is a dangerous development for any government or military force and can only be countered by accurate collection of information gained through the primary disciplines (Human, Signals, Open Source, Measurement and Signature, and Geospatial Intelligence) and an unbiased analysis of the collated information. If this intelligence is based upon emotion or an uninformed belief of an adversary’s abilities, this could spell disaster in the tactical and strategic level responses of a nation-state.

Alan Cunningham
Alan Cunningham
Alan Cunningham is a graduate of Norwich University's Master of Arts in International Relations program. He is currently working as an AP U.S. History Teacher in San Antonio, but intends to join the U.S. Navy as an Officer in the Summer of 2022. He has been accepted to a PhD in History program with the University of Birmingham in the UK. He has been published in the Jurist, the U.S. Army War College's War Room, Security Magazine, and the Asia-Pacific Security Magazine, in addition to many others.