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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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Freed from aerial observation and the threat of air attack, Georgian forces could move dismounted over the mountains more readily than Russian mechanized forces can move along the roads. Which means that the Georgians would be free to set up ambushes to block further Russian advances and to interdict their lines of communication. We can provide the wherewithal for them to do this. First, we need to give the Georgians anti-tank mines, and not just any kind, but our latest "smart" off-route mines like the XM93 Wide Area Mine (WAM). These don't have to be placed directly on the roads, but can be put off to the side, where built-in sensors can detect armored vehicles and launch explosive formed penetrator (RFP) warheads at them.

Second, we need to give them our best anti-tank guided missile, the FGM-148 Javelin. This is a "fire and forget" weapon: once the operator lines up the target in his sights and locks on, he can fire the missile and get away, while the missile will fly autonomously to the target. With a range of about two kilometers, the Javelin also uses a "top attack" profile, diving down onto the roof of the tank where the armor is thinnest. In action in Operation Iraqi Freedom, javelins were devastating against Russian-designed tanks. Knocking out a few tanks or other armored vehicles on a narrow mountain road creates a barrier to movement behind which all traffic piles up, immobile and vulnerable to attack.

Most of that traffic will consist of trucks and other "soft" vehicles. It's a waste to go after them with expensive missiles, but cheap mortars work pretty well. Even better would be long-range, highly accurate heavy sniper rifles, such as the 12.7mm (.50-caliber) Barrett, much favored by U.S. special forces. Georgian special forces are reputed to be well trained and highly motivated. They would probably be even more motivated fighting Russians on their own soil than they were fighting al Qaeda back in Iraq.

Pretty soon, Russian forces will be taking serious casualties. They will have to inject more troops to protect their lines of communication. They will have to get out of their troop carriers and climb up into the mountains, where they will take more casualties from an agile and elusive enemy. They can't even resort to the time honored tactic of butchering the local population of Ossetia and Abkhazia, since these are now "Russian citizens," having been granted passports by the Russian government (thereby doing Hitler one better: there actually were Germans in the Sudetenland, but Putin had to invent his downtrodden "Russian" minority in Georgia).

As Russian forces start to bleed, it will be impossible, even in the controlled media of Putin's Russia, to hide the casualties from the Russian people. They will probably respond to this as they did to the bloodletting in both Afghanistan and Chechnya. Worse, for the Russian government, a prolonged and bloody war will require a massive increase in the Russian military budget, which has been run on a shoestring for most of the Putin era. That would mean making painful choices between the military and other priorities, precisely at the same time that oil prices have begun to come down, cutting into Russian revenues. In addition, the Russian military will begin to worry about the derailing of its abortive transformation plan: as the U.S. military recently discovered, you can fight a war, or you can transform yourself, but it's almost impossible to do both at once. Warfighting will eat into the already thin training, procurement, and research & development budgets, and soon the Russian staff will be howling, too.

So what will Russia do, in such a circumstance? They could escalate, but they might find more palatable a face-saving withdrawal, turning over Ossetia and Abkhazia to an international peacekeeping force, and leaving Georgian territory free of Russian troops. Georgia would then have to make its own peace with the separatists, but with a buffer between itself and the Russian army, the Georgians may have more leverage over its intransigent minorities.