Conflict Exposes Obsolete Hardware

ReutersA Georgian T-72 tank driving toward Tskhinvali last week. The country's Soviet-era arsenal has been upgraded.
The brief but intensive armed conflict in South Ossetia has signaled Russia's willingness and ability to fight and win conflicts beyond its borders after years of focusing its war machine on nuclear deterrence and the suppression of internal security threats.

But while the conflict has demonstrated that Russia can and will coerce its post-Soviet neighbors with force if the West doesn't intervene, it has exposed the technical backwardness of its military.

The technical sophistication of the Russian forces turned out to be inferior in comparison with the Georgian military. While Georgia's armed forces operated Soviet-era T-72 tanks and Su-25 attack planes, both were upgraded with equipment such as night-vision systems to make them technologically superior to similar models operated by the Russian Ground Forces, said Konstantin Makiyenko, deputy director of the Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies.

"The Russian forces had to operate in an environment of technical inferiority," Makiyenko said.

Another area where the Russian military appeared to have lagged behind the Georgian armed forces was in electronic warfare, said Anatoly Tsyganok, a retired army commando and independent military expert.

The Georgian forces were also well-trained, with many of them drilled by U.S. and Israeli advisers.

These factors helped the Georgian military easily take the South Ossetian capital, Tskhinvali, located in a basin, after more than 10 hours of intensive air strikes and artillery fire on Aug. 7. The shelling of the city was probably carried out with the use of unmanned aerial vehicles for targeting -- a capability that Russia's armed forces have yet to acquire.

The attack came as a surprise to Russian peacekeepers stationed in South Ossetia, and the conflict represents a major intelligence failure, former Defense Minister Pavel Grachev said in an interview published in Nezavisimaya Gazeta this week.

But Stratfor, a private U.S.-based intelligence agency, said Russian commanders were aware of a strong possibility that Georgian forces might attack and had amassed equipment close to the Russian-Georgian border but refrained from crossing over so as not to jump the gun. "Given the posture of Russian troops, how could intelligence analysts have missed the possibility that the Russians had laid a trap, hoping for a Georgian invasion to justify its own counterattack?" Stratfor said in an analysis.

Whether or not the attack came as a surprise, the Georgian side timed it well, with Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in Beijing for the Olympics and both President Dmitry Medvedev and the commander of the 58th Army, which is closest to South Ossetia, on vacation, Tsyganok said.

Only 2,500 Ossetian fighters and less than 600 Russian peacekeepers were on hand to counter 7,500 Georgian troops backed by dozens of tanks and armored personnel carriers, according to estimates by Russian generals and experts. Tbilisi's plan appears to have been to conquer Tskhinvali in 24 hours and then advance to South Ossetia's border with Russia in the next 24 hours to present Russia with a fait accompli.

The blitzkrieg plan, however, faltered despite the personnel and technical superiority of Georgian troops, highlighting errors in the Georgians' political and military planning.

The Georgians failed to fully conquer Tskhinvali and started to retreat on Aug. 8, when army units arrived from Russia. The Russians eventually forced the Georgian units into full retreat by bombing military facilities across Georgia to disrupt supplies and reinforcements.

The Kremlin timed its response perfectly, because sending troops earlier would have drawn immediate accusations of a disproportionate response, while stalling further could have allowed the Georgian troops to seize Tskhinvali and the rest of South Ossetia, Makiyenko said. The Russian troops established control over much of South Ossetia by Aug. 10 and then started to make inroads into Georgia proper, destroying military facilities. As the Russian and South Ossetian units advanced, forces from another separatist province, Abkhazia, moved to push Georgian units out of the upper Kodor Gorge. They succeeded in doing so shortly after Russia deployed an additional 9,000 paratroopers and 350 armored vehicles to Abkhazia under the pretext of deterring a Georgian attack on Russian peacekeepers there.

The Georgian attack failed because President Mikheil Saakashvili and the rest of Georgia's leadership miscalculated the speed of Russia's intervention, defense analysts said. Tbilisi also underestimated the South Ossetian paramilitary's determination to resist the conquest and overestimated the Georgian forces' resolve to fight in the face of fierce resistance. The Georgian military also failed to take advantage of the fact that Russian reinforcements had to arrive via the Roksky Tunnel and mountain passes, which are easier to block than roads on flat terrain.

Another reason the Georgians lost was because the Russian military used knowledge gleaned from past conflicts, including the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia and its own reconquest of Chechnya. "Russia has learned the lessons taught by NATO in Yugoslavia, immediately initiating a bombing campaign against Georgia's air bases and other military facilities," Tsyganok said.

Having learned from the Chechen conflict, Russian commanders minimized the presence of inexperienced and poorly trained troops in the advancing units, he said.

Anatoly Nogovitsyn, deputy head of the armed forces' General Staff, denied media reports that conscripts served in these units, but in any case it was professional soldiers who bore the brunt of the assault. Among them were elite airborne commando and army units such as the Vostok battalion, manned by ethnic Chechens and subordinated to the Main Intelligence Directorate. The battalion did not lose a single soldier in the fighting and earned high praise from generals for the operation in South Ossetia, Kommersant reported Wednesday.

Irakli Gedenidze / Reuters
A Russian Sukhoi fighter dropping bombs on Georgian positions last week.

The extent of the causalities and loss of equipment by South Ossetian and Georgian forces remained unclear Thursday. As of Wednesday evening, Russia lost 70 servicemen in combat, while another 171 were wounded, including the commander of the 58th Army, Lieutenant General Anatoly Khrulev, who led the counteroffensive, Nogovitsyn said.

The fact that Russian warplanes failed to prevent the shelling of Khrulev's convoy attests to the insufficiency of the Russian Air Force in the conflict.

Khrulev's vulnerability, however, might have come as a result of his own incompetence, as he chose to travel in a convoy that lacked sufficient combat support and was accompanied by journalists who used telephones that could have been intercepted by Georgian electronic warfare specialists, said Yury Netkachev, a retired lieutenant general and former deputy commander of the Russian troops in the South Caucasus.

Nogovitsyn said the Georgians shot down four Russian warplanes. The Georgians said that Russia had lost 19 planes as of Monday.

The Air Force's losses, including a long-range Tu-22, and helplessness in the face of air strikes by Georgian Su-25 attack planes and artillery fire on Tskhinvali as late as Monday should set off alarm bells in Russia, Makiyenko said. "The failure to quickly suppress the Georgian air defense despite rather rudimentary capabilities or to achieve air supremacy despite a lack of fighter planes in the Georgian air force shows the poor condition of the Russian Air Force," he said.

The loss of Russian planes might have come because of the poor training of pilots, who log only a fraction of the hundreds of flight hours that their NATO counterparts do annually, Netkachev wrote in Nezavisimaya Gazeta on Monday.

Russian intelligence bears responsibility too for failing to provide up-to-date information on the capabilities of the Georgian air defense and air force, Netkachev said. As recently as three years ago, Georgia had no pilots capable of flying the Israeli-upgraded Su-25 planes, he said, adding that Russian commanders should have known that Ukraine had supplied Buk and Osa air-defense systems to Georgia and might have trained its operators.

"One general lesson that the Russian side should learn is that it is possible to build a capable, well-trained force in just three to four years, as Saakashvili did," Makiyenko said.

The military brass has admitted the poor performance of some systems and the inferiority of others and will draw "serious conclusions," Nogovitsyn said Wednesday. "We have incurred serious losses, including in the Air Force, and have taken into account what's happened and will continue to do so," he said.

He hinted that the military command was not satisfied with the way the Air Force had targeted sites beyond the front lines but said some of the blame lies in the fact that the Georgians' air-defense systems were mobile. He attributed the inefficiency of aerial reconnaissance to smoke from burning buildings in Tskhinvali. He also singled out the backwardness of Russia's electronic warfare systems, acknowledging that they dated back to Soviet times.

The armed forces lack round-the-clock all-weather high-precision weaponry systems, as well as modern electronic warfare systems, defense analysts have said for years. The lack of such systems was highlighted by the two wars that federal forces fought in Chechnya. A draft strategy for the development of the armed forces through 2030, leaked to the press earlier this summer, says the modern and advanced weapons systems used by Western armed forces are one of the main threats facing Russia.

Only 20 percent of conventional weaponry operated by the armed forces can be described as modern, according to Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye, an independent military weekly. Yet the government and military have disproportionately skewed financing toward the strategic nuclear forces, which they see as the main deterrent, at the expense of conventional forces.

The lack of modern, quality equipment became evident when several tanks and armored personnel carriers broke down as army reinforcements moved from Russia to South Ossetia, Makiyenko said. Overall, however, the Ground Forces operated better than the Air Force, accomplishing their mission of routing the Georgian units, he said.

"The main lesson that Russia should draw from this conflict is that we need to urgently upgrade our Air Force, with a comprehensive general reform to follow," he said.

So far, however, there is no sign that the Russian leadership wants to put more thought into preparing for future conflicts. While detailing the Western threat, the draft 2008-2030 military strategy only vaguely refers to local and regional threats.