NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — The proliferation of cameras now in use around the world make it increasingly difficult for China and Russia to control the narrative in international disputes, according to a senior U.S. Navy intelligence official.

Photographs and other documentation of run-ins between Chinese and Russian forces and those of other countries have proven critical to debunking propaganda, establishing factual timelines and holding Presidents Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin to account, Rear Adm. Mike Studeman said April 5 at the Navy League’s Sea-Air-Space conference in National Harbor, Maryland.

Among recent examples, he said, was Russian harassment of a U.S. Air Force intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance drone, which splashed into the Black Sea after an in-air collision in March. Footage captured by the MQ-9 Reaper — and quickly made public — showed two Russian Su-27 jets flying erratically, dumping fuel and the crash that ultimately forced it down.

“The affected party or a monitoring party, essentially, now is able to take that and say, ‘This is what’s really going on. China, do you stand by it? Xi Jinping, do you stand by it? This is you, right?’” said Studeman, commander of the Office of Naval Intelligence. “There’s a statement: Sunlight is the best disinfectant. That applies right here.”

Cameras have recorded alleged war crimes by Russian troops in Ukraine and intercepts of aircraft across the world. China conducted more than 100 intercepts of U.S. aircraft in international airspace between 2021 and 2023, according to the admiral’s presentation at the conference.

U.S. Navy Rear Adm. Mike Studeman, an intelligence official, discusses "Chinese high-risk behaviors' at the Navy League's Sea-Air-Space conference in National Harbor, Maryland, on April 5, 2023.

Cameras, too, documented an attempted blinding by a Chinese ship of a Philippine coast guard crew in February. Luckily, Studeman said, the “Philippines and others are getting wise to this, and what they’re doing is they’re actually recording.”

“Their best weapon system is not a gun, it’s not a missile,” he said. “Their best weapon system is actually a camera or video camera to be able to show the world what’s really happening.”

Pentagon officials consider China and Russia premier national security threats. The U.S. military, as a result, spends countless hours monitoring their respective maneuvers, fortifications and investments.

If bad-faith behavior is not exposed, it will continue to “thrive in the shadows, like a mushroom,” said Studeman, who previously served as the director of intelligence at U.S. Indo-Pacific Command.

“Staying silent in this world that I just described, that China’s painting, is not an option,” he said, “and will not advance our security interests or those of any other nation out there.”

Colin Demarest was a reporter at C4ISRNET, where he covered military networks, cyber and IT. Colin had previously covered the Department of Energy and its National Nuclear Security Administration — namely Cold War cleanup and nuclear weapons development — for a daily newspaper in South Carolina. Colin is also an award-winning photographer.

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