NOTE: This story, originally published at 3:55 p.m. EST on March 2, was updated to include comment from the State Department.
WASHINGTON — A senior US intelligence official warned Wednesday that he has "great concern" about Russia's intentions to fly sophisticated surveillance planes over the United States, saying it would give Russia "a significant advantage."
Russia reportedly announced its intent to submit plans for the flights using advanced digital cameras under the 2002 Open Skies Treaty. With more than 30 signatories, including Russia, the US and the European Union, the treaty established a program of unarmed aerial surveillance flights giving all participants the ability to gather information about military forces and activities of concern to them.
"The things that you can see, the amount of data you can collect, the things you can do with post-processing, allows Russia, in my opinion, to get incredible foundational intelligence on critical infrastructure, bases, ports, all of our facilities," Stewart said at a congressional hearing. "So from my perspective, it gives them a significant advantage."
Rep. Mike Turner, R-Ohio, and chairman of the AirLand subcommittee, asked whether US participation in the treaty is worthwhile, asserting that Russia is learning more from the US than the other way around. Stewart said he would "love to deny" Russia the flights.
A State Department spokesman issued the following statement on Wednesday, after Stewart's testimony.
"The Open Skies Treaty enhances confidence and transparency by allowing the 34 countries that are parties to it to obtain information on the military forces and activities of other treaty partners," the State Department spokesman said. "It contributes to European security by providing images and information on military forces, including information to verify compliance with arms control agreements."
Stewart's comments before the House Armed Services' Emerging Threats and Capabilities subcommittee come days after the US and Russia announced an agreement for a partial truce in Syria and amid the military's continued wariness of Moscow since it annexed Crimea two years ago.
The president's budget request for the Pentagon includes a four-fold increase for the European Reassurance Initiative, which funds a stepped-up US troop and equipment presence on the continent. It also includes $3.5 billion for Eastern European infrastructure, meant to aid the US should it wish to strike through Russia's anti-access and area-denial defenses.
Before testifying in a closed, classified session, Stewart in open session painted a picture of a Russia whose wily military is modernizing, led by a president whose position is for now secure despite a shaky economy at home. Russian President Vladimir Putin, with a grip on the Russian media, is viewed domestically as standing up to the West as Russia claims its place on the world stage.
"All of us should be as popular as he is viewed in Russia," Stewart said.
In the Middle East, Russia's intervention in the Syrian civil war allows it to showcase advanced capabilities for US rival Iran, who could well use resources available as sanctions ease to purchase advanced weapons from Russia, its "supplier of choice," Stewart said
Russia's cooperation on Syria is in part a distraction for its activities against Ukraine and part of a "grand plan" to win unspecified concessions from the international community in the Ukraine conflict, he said.
Meanwhile, the Russian military has been using stepped-up snap exercises at home to rattle Europe and intentionally blur the lines between training and rehearsals for activity outside its borders.
"The recent snap exercises have been realistic, they have been threatening, they have shown a level of sophistication that I have not seen in 20 or so years," Stewart said.
Stewart declined to discuss the Russian military's maintenance and logistical abilities in an open hearing but said the nation's armed forces had "systematically modernized their weapons systems, how they deploy and sustain their forces."
Russia's future force will be smaller, but more capable of handling a range of contingencies on Russia's periphery and expeditionary operations, according to Stewart's testimony for the record. Its ambitious rearmament program is expected to be challenged by corruption and industrial inefficiency, Western sanctions, and the poor state of its economy.
Russia places the highest priority on the maintenance of its robust arsenal of strategic and nonstrategic nuclear weapons, according to Stewart, who detailed Moscow's large investments in its nuclear weapons programs.
Russia's strategic nuclear forces priorities include force modernization and command-and-control facilities upgrades, he said. Russia will field more road-mobile SS-27 Mod-2 ICBMs with multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicles, deploy more Dolgorukiy class ballistic missile submarines with SS-N-32 Bulava submarine-launched ballistic missiles, and continue the development of the RS-26 ICBM and next-generation cruise missiles.
Joe Gould is the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He served previously as Congress reporter.