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The Pain Game

A military response to Russia's aggression?

8:15 PM, Aug 14, 2008 • By STUART KOEHL
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Conventional wisdom has rapidly hardened around the proposition that there is no practical military response to the Russian invasion of Georgia. In fact, if the Georgians were inclined to fight, there is quite a lot they could do militarily, and in a way that would not directly involve U.S. or NATO forces. To understand how this military option would work, some background is required.

Most people have been grossly exaggerating Russian military strength and prowess in this exercise, obviously one long in the planning, and actually involving relatively small forces. By all accounts, the Russian "58th Army" has invaded Georgian territory with about 500 tanks and an equal number of infantry fighting vehicles--the equivalent of roughly two armored divisions. That's pretty small beer, really, but adequate to handle a smaller Georgian army largely dispersed to deal with counter-guerrilla operations.

A close examination of video and photos of the Russian force also reveals top of the line equipment--late model T-80 and T-90 main battle tanks, and BMP-2 IFVs. Now, the Caucasus Military District is something of a backwater, home of Category II and Category III divisions, most of which are kept below strength and equipped with older systems, such as the T-72 MBT. On the other hand, the Category I divisions are kept close to Moscow and the western military districts, because that is where the main threat is perceived, and also because that's much better terrain for tank warfare. Obviously, the Russian army carefully transferred the forces for this operation from central Russia all the way to the Caucasus--in secret--and also accompanied the move with a comprehensive maskirovka intended to put us at our ease (e.g., Putin did go to the Olympic opening ceremonies, after all).

From this we can infer what most experts already know--that the Russian army, though still numerically large, has relatively few competent, deployable formations--there are the airborne divisions and the air assault brigades, and a few tank and motor-rifle divisions, but not much else. Similarly, the Russian air force doesn't have very many fully operational aircraft or deep reserves of fuel, spare parts and munitions. This invasion has probably eaten deeply into Russian operations and maintenance funding, to say nothing of its war reserve stockpiles of ordnance and equipment. Russia must have bet on a short and fairly bloodless war, because it cannot afford--militarily or politically--a protracted slog. Not only doesn't it have the equipment to do so, but it doesn't have enough highly trained troops to sustain heavy casualties. The Russian military consists of a small, diamond-hard point on the end of a wooden stick. If the point shatters or wears down, you are left fighting the stick. (It should be noted that Ralph Peters, writing in the New York Post, has been scathing in his assessment of the Russian army's performance in Georgia, so by Western standards even the best of the Russian army would be considered rather mediocre).

The question is how to wear it down. Georgia is a mountainous country, with few good roads and many choke points. A dismounted guerrilla or light infantry force can hold up a road-bound armored force and inflict disproportionate casualties, if properly equipped and led. Unfortunately, the Georgian Army was neither, in this particular instance. Rather, it was trained and equipped the fight the war it had--an insurgency by separatist guerrillas, requiring mostly infantry and small arms. Confronted by tanks and close support aircraft and helicopters, the Georgian forces had little choice but to run.

Having pulled back from Ossetia and Abkhazia, the Georgians can now regroup and re-equip. They are in desperate need of two things: weapons to kill tanks, and weapons to kill or deter aircraft and helicopters. We can supply both. The Stinger missile, the bane of Russian Frontal Aviation in Afghanistan, is still the most potent shoulder-fired weapon around. It will cause Russian close support aircraft to keep their distance, or to attack from higher altitude. Providing Georgia with medium-range surface-to-air missiles which can be deployed from Georgian territory proper will further push back their high-altitude aircraft (e.g., Tu-22M Backfires).