WASHINGTON — NATO's top military commander warned of gaps in US intelligence gathering in Eastern Europe and its ability to understand Moscow's intent in the wake of Russian aggression.

"Russian military operations in Ukraine and the region more broadly have underscored that there are critical gaps in our collection and analysis," US Air Force Gen Phillip Breedlove told lawmakers at a Senate Armed Services committee hearing in Washington.

"Some Russian military exercises have caught us by surprise, and our textured feel for Russia's involvement on the ground in Ukraine has been quite limited."

Breedlove said the US first learned through social media that a large Russian military exercise, billed as being tied to the Arctic, in fact had a much larger reach.

Breedlove, the commander of American forces in Europe, said his command's pool of Russia experts had "shrunk considerably," since the Cold War and intelligence assets of all kinds were shifted to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — or toward understanding future threats.

He called for more intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) assets, and improved intelligence sharing with partners and allies. "A small investment in this area could lead to a large return," he said.

Senators expressed dismay that the US military in Europe was caught off guard by Russia's actions and told Breedlove to advocate for what he needs.

"This government spends over $70 billion a year on intelligence, and I hate hearing the word 'surprise' in a hearing, and I get frustrated when I hear about your need for ISR," said Sen. Angus King, an independent from Maine.

"Sometimes we forget who needs the intelligence, and you're the guy that needs it."

Breedlove defended the wartime reallocation of intelligence analysts and tools, at a time when the US was trying to make Russia a partner. He complimented the intelligence community for recent shifts back to Eastern Europe.

Earlier, Sen. Joe Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat, remarked that the US' relationship with Russia appeared to be "colder than the Cold War of yesteryear, and asked what activities were underway to build a dialogue.

Breedlove replied that Secretary of State John Kerry is working with his Russian counterpart, but the relationship between Breedlove and his equivalent existed but is "diminished."

Meanwhile, the US has begun to address a Russian propaganda effort that Breedlove described as "dedicated, capable and very lively information campaign from Russia." Russia's campaign, estimated to cost $350 million, includes successfully compelling broadcasts into the Baltics, he said.

"They are in all those spaces, from print, to Internet, to TV, and they're in those spaces in a dedicated, capable way," Breedlove said.

To prepare the response, Breedlove will meet next week with a State Department's team. Special operations forces are already working with NATO and other allies, he said.

Lethal aid was a hot topic in the hearing, as several senators questioned why the US hasn't sent weapons to Ukraine.

Breedlove, who is said to support sending lethal aid to Ukrainian forces, said that discussions — presumably inside NATO — are underway to determine whether such a move would have a detrimental effect.

No one, he said, advocates arming the Ukrainians to defeat Russian forces on the battlefield, but "we do believe we should consider changing the decision calculus of Mr. Putin."

"We need to be intellectually honest that anything we do will provoke a Russian response," Breedlove said.

"I have also said that inaction is also an action, and the Russians will react to that. Mr. Putin does understand weakness and takes advantage of it. We need to take a look at both sides of the ledger and we are doing that."

Email: jgould@defensenews.com

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