Georgian planning flaws led to failure
By Richard Giragosian
With the announcement of a ceasefire agreement on August 13, a five-day
conflict between Georgian and Russian forces effectively ended, although
Russian troops seemed slow to cease all hostilities and complete their
withdrawal from Georgian territory.
The conflict was triggered by a large-scale Georgian assault on the breakaway
region of South Ossetia on August 7, which the Georgian side argued was a move
in response to several days of sporadic cross-border attacks and mortar fire
against Georgian positions. As Georgian forces entered South Ossetia and
initially seized the capital Tskhinvali in attempt to subdue the separatist
region, Russian forces responded with an overwhelming show of
force, deploying substantial armored forces and ground troops and quickly
establishing air superiority.
Although the relatively brief duration of open hostilities now seem to have
ended, the campaign has significantly decimated Georgian military capabilities
and has raised new questions over the viability of both Georgia's long-time
aspirations for North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) membership and its
hopes to retake its two breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, as
well as spurring a sharp deterioration in Russian-US relations.
Although the initial August 7 Georgian offensive was triggered by a series of
provocations, ranging from the shooting down of several Israeli-produced
Georgian unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to an influx of new Russian
peacekeepers and equipment in May, the Georgian military strategy was
significantly flawed from the start, based on an underestimation of the Russian
response and an inadequate threat assessment.
The Georgian offensive opened with an infantry assault against South Ossetia's
capital Tskhinvali, situated in a valley surrounded by Georgian-populated
villages, with an open terrain conducive to armored and mass infantry
penetration. The thrust came after a preparatory artillery attack from Georgian
positions with fire support capabilities including target-oriented and
concentrated fire, and including a mortar barrage and launch of notoriously
imprecise truck-mounted GRAD multiple-barreled rocket launchers.
Although politically in line with Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili's
consistent threats to restore his country's territorial integrity, in strictly
military terms, the offensive was the first-ever test of the US-trained
Georgia's first tactical blunder was also its most serious strategic setback.
The rebel South Ossetia region borders the Russian region of North Ossetia and
is connected by the Roki Tunnel, which is the sole reliable passage through the
Caucasus mountains. While the strategic significance of the Roki Tunnel is
enhanced by its role as the region's only reliable external link, Georgia's
apparent failure to recognize its inherent vulnerability as the only effective
land route for a Russian advance was a glaring oversight, if not disastrously
fatal decision for Georgian military planners.
The failure to even attempt to impede or constrict this land route gave Russian
forces secure and unopposed access and greatly reduced the danger of
over-extended supply lines.
The Russian response
The Russian response was both rapid and overwhelming and, as the first military
offensive beyond Russia's borders since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in
1979, its severity was unexpected. The Russian campaign was spearheaded by its
58th Army, which as the centerpiece of Russia's already volatile Caucasus
Military District, is regarded as the best trained and most combat-ready unit
of the Russian Army.
Initially formed in 1995 specifically for operations in Chechnya, the
70,000-strong 58th Army is based in the nearby North Ossetian capital
Vladikavkaz and consists of 609 tanks, 2,000 armored personnel carriers and
infantry fighting vehicles, 125 artillery pieces, 190 Grad and Uragan
volley-fire rocket launchers, and 450 anti-aircraft guns. It is also endowed
with its own air support of 120 combat aircraft and 70 helicopters.
Following the deployment of an elite paratrooper battalion and smaller special
forces unit (spetznaz), an infantry force of 15,000 and 150 tanks and
heavy self-propelled artillery pieces were immediately deployed to South
Ossetia. With the Georgian failure to close the Roki Tunnel connecting South
Ossetia to North Ossetia within Russia proper, neither the initial deployment
nor subsequent lines of communication or supplies faced any threat.
The second stage of the Russian campaign opened a new front in northwestern
Georgia, as Russia deployed 1,000 airborne forces from three assault companies
to Abkhazia, Georgia's larger and second separatist region. Landing in ships
from the Russian port of Novorossiisk, this force established a bridgehead and
assumed positions along Abkhazia's Black Sea coast, moving quickly to prepare
to challenge Georgian positions in the Upper Kodori Gorge, a valley
strategically dividing Abkhazia from Georgia proper. This force was also tasked
with securing the road to Abkhazia to prevent any attempt by Georgian units to
reinforce its positions.
Russia's land campaign then moved well beyond the objectives of securing South
Ossetia and Abkhazia and pushed through to secure a perimeter security zone
within Georgia proper. An essential element of this plan was to decimate
fundamental Georgian military capabilities by pursuing retreating Georgian
units, destroying as much heavy equipment as possible and by specifically
targeting all Georgian military facilities and bases, even those not involved
in the conflict, in order to disrupt Georgia's military critical
This targeting of Georgian military infrastructure included successful air
attacks on the Georgian bases at Kojori, Senaki, home to the 3rd Motorized
Rifle Brigade, and Gori, where artillery and tank brigades are stationed, as
well as against Black Sea port facilities at Poti, the Marneuli and Vaziani
airfields, and the Tbilaviamsheni aviation plant outside of Tbilisi, the site
of a factory producing and testing Sukhoi Su-25 fighter jets.
Russian air dominance
But the most significant Russian advantage was its ability to rapidly assume
air dominance, bolstered by its effective countering of the Georgian air
defense network by targeting Georgian command and control and leveraging
coordinated electronic warfare and cyber-attacks. With only 9 Su-25 and 9 L-29
aircraft, the Georgian Air Force was quickly overwhelmed and the Russian
runway-targeted bombing of each of Georgia's military bases was especially
In terms of air defense, consisting of S-125 (SA-3 "Goa") air-defense systems
and reportedly one S-200 missile system, Georgia's early victories of downing
at least seven Russian aircraft (Russia had confirmed the loss of four aircraft
as JDW went to press) ended with the Russian targeting of radar installations
and the country's P-18 air surveillance radars.
Russia was able to quickly establish air superiority owing to the Georgian air
force's poor state of readiness and its outdated and obsolete aviation, air
defense and air surveillance assets. Another crucial Georgian liability was its
Air Surveillance Command, which, while being theoretically capable of
coordinating with air-defense units, is not electronically integrated in the
air-defense network and must communicate by telephone or two-way radios.
Russia's display of naval power
Seeking to impose a naval blockade of Georgia's Black Sea ports in part to
deter any arms shipments from Ukraine, the Russian Black Sea Fleet mobilized
its Moskva cruiser, the Smetlivy patrol boat, and several escorts and began
patrolling the Abkhazian coast on August 10. On the same day, the Russian ships
encountered four guided-missile boats approaching from Georgian territorial
The Russian naval force allegedly responded to "a series of dangerous
maneuvers" with the Smetlivy firing a warning shot in the direction of the
patrol boats, which was reportedly ignored, prompting the Russian ships to sink
a Georgian patrol boat and scattering the others.
The engagement was the first and last naval confrontation of the conflict,
mainly due to the inferiority of the Georgian navy, which has retained a
minimal capability of port defense and maritime patrols. Despite its nine
principal ships, the Georgian navy has been seriously neglected in favor of the
development of a US-backed Coast Guard. Moreover, the navy also suffers from
poor crew readiness and inexperience, exacerbated by years of under-investment
and limited opportunities to train at sea.
Thus, the combined deficiencies of Georgian naval and air capabilities has
meant that the country failed to have adequate resources to ensure the
comprehensive and effective defense of its airspace and territorial waters even
prior to the conflict.
Cyber warfare has long been a feature of conflicts in the Caucasus region,
ranging from cyber attacks on Russian websites during the Chechen conflict to
an Armenian-Azerbaijani exchange of cyber attacks related to the
Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Similarly, Georgian state-affiliated websites were
effectively targeted and overwhelmed by sophisticated denial-of-service (DOS)
cyber attacks from the very start of the conflict.
The cyber campaign, modeled on the coordinated cyber attacks that targeted
Estonian government websites in April and May 2007, initially disrupted
Georgian government domains before expanding to attack Georgian media websites
and even the Azerbaijani Day.Az news agency website that reportedly provided
pro-Georgian coverage of the conflict.
Most notably, one successful cyber attack that hacked the Georgian Foreign
Ministry website featured the posting of digitally doctored images of
Saakashvili, prompting Polish President Lech Kaczynski to offer his official
website for use by the Georgian government.
In light of the combination of fundamental tactical shortcomings and serious
strategic blunders in the Georgian campaign to retake South Ossetia, it seems
clear that the flaws in Georgian military planning were based on two key
factors: an over-confident assumption of its own combat readiness and
capabilities, as well as by a serious underestimation of the scale and scope of
the Russian response.
The first of these factors, an over-estimation of Georgian capabilities, is
rooted in the US-run $64 million Georgia Train and Equip Program (GTEP) and the
subsequent Sustainment and Stability Operations Program (SSOP). Yet despite the
seemingly impressive US effort, even after several years of training and
equipping, the Georgian military essentially remains divided between four light
infantry brigades, consisting of US-trained group of comparatively well-paid,
professional servicemen, and a much larger, poorly-trained conscript force
plagued by low morale and inadequate pay.
Moreover, neither US program was ever aimed at enhancing the combat readiness
or offensive capabilities of the Georgian armed forces. Designed as a flexible,
time-phased training initiative, GTEP was never aimed at providing the Georgian
military with offensive capabilities, but merely provided training and
equipment for 2,600 Georgian army and Interior Ministry forces using company
infantry tactics with the intended goal of acquiring limited counter-terrorism
capabilities. Similarly, the goal of the US-run Sustainment and Stability
Operations Program was merely to prepare select Georgian units for deployment
to Iraq in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
While the limited value of the US military assistance did not seem to lower
Georgian confidence, the second factor of under-estimating the Russian response
was rooted in Georgia's mistaken threat perception. Specifically, Georgia's
strategic assessment, reflected in its three guiding plans, the National
Security Concept, National Threat Assessment and National Military Strategy,
each disregarded any direct threat from Russia, stating that there was "little
possibility of open military aggression against Georgia", and defining "the
probability of direct aggression" against Georgia as "relatively low".
And perhaps most importantly, the actual state of readiness of the Georgian
armed forces suggests that although the Georgian offensive may have been more
than adequate against local forces in South Ossetia, they faced insurmountable
challenges when confronted by a much more combat-capable and over-powering
Thus, Georgian deficiencies from not being able to wage or defend against
large-scale combat operations involving a major armed force, lacking any
combined-arms experience or training, and from having insufficient logistical
support and inadequate air defenses, combined to doom Georgia's operational
goals in South Ossetia from the very start.