Russian military reform plans have been adjusted as a result of the Georgia war. However, these early ‘lessons learned’ may only result in some minor modifications to overall reform plans. That approach is in itself mixed, as some Russian generals believe the war provided an opportunity to assess the inefficiencies and shortcomings of the Russian military ranging from equipment issues to tactical command and control, while others take comfort in the demonstration of a rapid conventional military victory over a United States and NATO trained army. These issues must also be examined carefully by Western military planners in order to make necessary calculations regarding how best to tailor their assistance in rebuilding the Georgian armed forces in the years ahead.
BACKGROUND: Lieutenant-General Vladimir Shamanov, chief of the armed forces’ Main Combat Training and Service Directorate, recently explained that the Russian military is in the process of developing new combat training programs that will utilize experience gained in recent conflicts including the war in Georgia in August 2008. “Training programs for services and service arms are being reassessed with due account taken of the specifics of the operation to rebuff the Georgian aggression against South Ossetia, and of the experience gained in Chechnya. We are also bearing in mind the Soviet Army's experience in Afghanistan, the United States’ operations in Iraq, and other armed conflicts,” Shamanov said.
The ‘five-day war’ revealed very serious equipment problems in the inventory of the Russian Army. Unlike the Georgian armed forces at that time, Russian units did not have appropriate systems of communications, reconnaissance, and target designation. Reportedly, one Russian commander during operations had to ask a journalist for his satellite phone in order to contact one of the units. Shamanov also confirmed that Russia’s Defense Ministry is compiling a list of modern tactical weapons and military hardware based on an analysis of its deficiencies during what it styles the ‘five-day war’ in the South Caucasus. Russian Officers who participated in the conflict told President Medvedev during a recent presidential visit to Vladikavkaz that they found the Georgian army superior in its equipment. Medvedev concluded that a rearmament program is urgently required to address this weakness.
During combat operations in South Ossetia, five regimental tactical groups (that is, reinforced motorized-rifle regiments) from the 19th (North Ossetia) and 42nd (Chechnya) Motorized-Rifle Divisions were deployed in the theater of operations. It appears that the command and control of this grouping was not carried out by the divisional staffs or even by the staff of the 58th Army (Vladikavkaz), but directly by the planning staffs of the North Caucasus Military District (MD) through a specially-formed group. This three-link structure of military district-operational command-brigade which has now been proposed by Defense Minister Serdyukov as a key part of Russia’s military reforms, seems like the formalization of this scheme.
In fact, the most ambitious element of Serdyukov’s military reform program to 2020 is the plan to transform the structure of the Russian army essentially abolishing its mobilization status: in other words, the Russian army will transfer to permanent readiness formations, with more contract personnel and a new structure. This will move away from the traditional division-regimental structure of the Russian Ground Troops and switch to a brigade based organization. “Today we have a four-link command-and-control system: military district, army, division, regiment. We are changing over to a three-link system: military district, operational command, brigade. That is, the division-regimental link will fall away, and brigades will appear,” Serdyukov said. Such reforms are intended to increase the effectiveness of troop command and control; while all non-fully manned (cadre) units will be disbanded, and only permanent combat-readiness units exist in the Russian Army. Of course, such reform plans predated the Georgia war, but they have been given new importance as a result of it and some implications are beginning to emerge.
IMPLICATIONS: The war in Georgia identified the need to make available the GLONASS satellite navigation system, since the Russian units had weak reconnaissance, both satellite and that which is conducted by unmanned aerial vehicles, resulting in limited sight of the battlefield and was in evidence in cases of inaccurate targeting for artillery and multiple launch rocket systems. Medvedev consequently set the objective to urgently evaluate the situation and adjust military expenditure to what is actually required to address these problems. Funding will be increased by 67 billion roubles immediately for the GLONASS program alone. However, these priorities raise serious issues surrounding financing such reforms that ensure such change will occur only gradually.
“We are not yet talking about increasing the financing -we discussed the optimization of resources within the framework of what has already been allocated,” Deputy Head of Committee for Defense Mikhail Babich told Izvestiya. “We have to determine what our priorities are and purchase whatever the Army needs -communications, reconnaissance, and targeting systems. It is obvious, however, that in time we will need additional expenditures, especially due to the fact that only since the beginning of the year, much of the military products have become 40 per cent more expensive,” Babich noted. Of course, with the global financial crisis and Russia facing its most serious financial crisis since 1998, ambitious military reform programs will be subject to changes and fluctuations.
While Russian military planners wrangle over the nuances of current plans to reform the army, it is clear that Moscow learned that with its existing forces in the North Caucasus Military District, it can still overwhelm a reformed and re-equipped Georgian military and secure its operational objectives. However, ensuring this in perpetuity will require re-equipping the Russian army, carrying out changes to its structure and prioritizing airborne troops in order to enhance the mobility and rapid deployment of forces during any future emergency.
Army General Vladimir Boldyrev, the commander-in-chief of Russia’s Ground Troops, has highlighted that the Russian army faced and overcame the tactics of an American-trained army during the conflict in August. “For the first time we faced actions of military formations that have organizational and personnel structures and have been trained on the basis of NATO standards. Their tactics corresponds to the view of the U.S. Army on fighting a battle. A particular characteristic of this tactics is inflicting maximal damage on the adversary predominantly without coming into combat contact,” Boldyrev explained. Thus, in Boldyrev’s view, U.S. and NATO assistance to the Georgian armed forces had concentrated on setting up combined units balanced in terms of their means of reconnaissance, control and engagement using NATO principles and standards and once contact was established, they encountered a force equipped with Western equipment and Russian-made weapons and equipment modernized in Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Israel, Ukraine and elsewhere. Boldyrev believes that morale amongst Russian troops was a positive factor that influenced the collapse of Georgian resistance.
CONCLUSIONS: Russia’s military victory in the war with Georgia exposed fundamental weaknesses within the Russian army, which Moscow is keen to redress in its current military reform plans. It also exposed profound fissures within the Western-trained Georgian armed forces, which Russian forces exploited all too easily. This in large measure resulted from Russian intelligence accurately profiling enemy forces and identifying their multiple weaknesses. With Russian military bases now planned for Abkhazia and South Ossetia and Russian Military Intelligence (GRU) recently confirming that it attaches high priority to these areas, Russia clearly intends to tighten its grip and increase its influence in the South Caucasus. In the longer term, however, as the Georgian armed forces are rebuilt, Russia plans higher readiness formations, manned by contract personnel combined with the use of rapid reaction forces and probably using enhanced equipment as well as precision guided munitions to guarantee its interests and regional superiority. In the meantime, Georgia will remain high on the agenda of Russian intelligence.AUTHOR’S BIO: Roger N. McDermott is a an Honorary Senior Research Fellow, Department of Politics and International Relations, University of Kent at Canterbury (UK) and Senior Fellow in Eurasian Military Studies, Jamestown Foundation, Washington DC. He specializes in the militaries and security issues in Russia, Central Asia and the South Caucasus.