Opinion: For Georgia, a smaller, professional and well trained army is preferable
06 September 2017

The Georgian army is today better trained and more battle hardened then it was in 2008, but drastic changes are still necessary if it is to become a fighting force fit for purpose argues Timothy Ogden in this op-ed

An increasingly bellicose Russia, set on expanding its armed forces and showing no signs of withdrawing its troops from their current deployments along the borders of its neighbors, has understandably set some Georgians wondering if they must soon have to look to their defences once again. Fears of a repeat invasion have been exacerbated by the Russian involvement in Ukraine and, more recently, Russian incursions into Georgian-controlled territory in the form of its creeping occupation.

Russian military exercises, carefully timed to coincide with the NATO-led Noble Partner maneuvers, leave none in doubt that - at the very least - Moscow has the draft of a plan for another invasion of Georgia, with the 2008 war serving as something of a blueprint. Yet the hopes and fears of general officers in both Russia and the West will centre around the same question of how well and how long will the Georgian Army be able to resist attack.

The Georgian Army has, by all accounts, acquitted itself well on operations in Afghanistan, and is most likely a more formidable fighting force than that which faced the Russians nine years ago. Georgian troops have been on continuous rotational deployments to Afghanistan, and many have experienced combat. Compared with the army of 2008, soldiers today have enjoyed more thorough training with their German and American counterparts, and their operational experiences in Afghanistan have been far more dangerous and costly (yet from an experience standpoint, more valuable) than the more peacekeeping-orientated duties undertaken earlier in Iraq. It is possible that the army of today would put up more fierce resistance than the force which went to war with Russia in 2008.

Yet the training and composition of the Army deserve close scrutiny. As invaluable as NATO-led exercises are, the recent Noble Partner training exercise included just over a hundred Georgian troops against almost 3,000 from NATO countries. Other NATO training exercises have included similar small numbers of Georgian troops; an army of 40,000 can hardly reap the benefits of Western training when large-scale exercises almost entirely cut out soldiers from the country the alliance is ostensibly assisting.

However, the West has been generous in accommodating Georgian junior officers in its military academies, but on returning home, these subalterns often report difficulties in working with seniors whose careers began either in the Soviet Union or the turmoil of the 1990s. Western training, doctrine and discipline are allegedly incompatible with battalion and brigade commanders who resent the enthusiasm of these young “upstarts”.

While the apparent unwillingness of the Georgian Army’s senior command will change with the passage of time as graduates of Sandhurst and West Point climb the ranks, Soviet-era stubbornness may die a hard death, and might once again be put to the test in the field. This out-dated mentality also affects the Army at the most fundamental of organizational levels; unlike in Western forces, in which field units are jointly composed of infantry, armored, logistics, artillery and signals assets, Georgian brigades consist entirely of troops capable of fulfilling one role. It seems especially unwise, for example, to station an artillery brigade on the other side of the country from infantry, armor and air defense troops. Junior Georgian officers also report that unlike in Western infantry units, Georgian battalions do not include dedicated anti-tank, sniper and mortar teams.

Yet in the opinion of a number of United States Army Special Forces advisers working in Georgia, the Georgian Army should not seek to become a conventionally-minded force capable of resisting a Russian invasion toe-to-toe. Rather, it should streamline itself to become a versatile, mobile army specializing in unconventional tactics; the Mujahideen broke the back of the mighty Soviet Army in Afghanistan, and NATO troops in more recent years have fared little better. Georgia’s geography is similar enough to that of Afghanistan for asymmetrical warfare to negate Russian air and armor advantages.

However, even if such a doctrinal shift could be effectively implemented, the problem of manpower would remain. Georgia maintains a conscription program which recruits young Georgian men for service for one year, most of which will be spent guarding government buildings throughout the country without even a weapon. During their time in uniform, these recruits will have little time on rifle ranges and undergo no specialized training. In the event of another war with Russia, as in 2008 all those who have completed their year’s worth of service are eligible to be called up, but the draftees of nine years ago reported utter confusion amongst the men assigned to lead them, as well as a lack of weapons, uniforms and equipment; little seems to have been done to rectify this.

Professional reserve troops in Western militaries serve on a part-time basis, training one night a week, several weeks a month, and a number of week-long camps per year. They undergo the same training programs as their regular counterparts, and are paid for their time; many also volunteer for duty overseas. Georgia has the potential to establish professional part-time troops of its own, especially if it abolishes its ineffective conscription program and frees both staff and equipment.

Attracting people to serve would likely have to be accomplished by offering financial incentives due to Georgia’s chronic unemployment and low-paying jobs; naturally, this would require substantial investment, and senior Georgian officers and politicians would have to appreciate that a smaller, well-trained army is preferable to any large conscript force. This, in truth, would likely prove to be a real battle as difficult as fighting off a Russian invasion, as Georgia’s government shows no signs of changing its defense plans in the future. But unless drastic changes are made, it will not matter that the men and experience of the Georgian Army are different to those of 2008, since the result of another conflict with Russia would undoubtedly be the same.

source: Timothy Ogden is a Tbilisi-based journalist and commentator with a particular interest in defence matters and foreign policy. He contributed this op-ed to