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    Central Asia
     Aug 20, 2008
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 Georgian troops.

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 infrastructure.

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 effective.

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 waters.

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 Russian force.

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.

(Copyright 2008 Richard Giragosian.)

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