Vol. 1, No. 20 (November 15, 2008)

Military planning in CIS countries after Georgia: The challenges of change

Paul Goble
Director of Research and Publications
Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy
Russia’s use of armed force in Georgia has created a new situation for national security planners in the post-Soviet states and adjoining countries.  Prior to Moscow’s actions in August-September 2008, most governments in this region designed their militaries to serve as a symbol and integrator of statehood, to respond to internal challenges to their rule, or to be in a position to take part in peacekeeping operations for one or another international organization.

Those tasks continue to be important, and no government in this region is going to ignore them as it considers what kind of forces and weapons systems it needs in the future.  But the Russian action in Georgia has broken a taboo on the use of force across an internationally recognized state border without authorization by the United Nations or other world body, and national security planners now must take that into account.
So far, no government has laid out its plans to redesign its country’s military in response, but there have been hints about the direction some of them are thinking in.  And because some of these new directions may soon prove destabilizing, it is worth considering five of the areas in which these governments may be thinking about making changes and the consequences these factors separately and together could have for relations between and among this region’s states.
Staffing.  Most governments in the region for reasons of cost have elected to have relatively small militaries, but now at least some of them may elect to have larger units either by increasing drafts so as to have more adult males in the population who have military experience and could be mobilized in the event of a conflict or by paying for more professionals so as to have a highly skilled, quick reaction force.  
In making these decisions, the governments involved are going to have to take into consideration not only the costs involved, both direct (paying for a larger military) and indirect (not having these people in the economy), but also the likely response of neighbors.  If any state increases the size and readiness of its forces, its neighbors are certain to view that as an unfriendly or at least potentially threatening act and respond, setting in train a military build up on both sides.
There is also the issue of using irregular forces either from within one’s own country or from allies in another.  Russian forces made use of South Ossetian irregulars, but these forces rapidly passed out of Moscow’s control and engaged in actions that many have characterized as genocide.  Any security planner thinking about using such groups thus must assess the risk that these militants will prove more trouble than they are worth.
Force Structure.  The Russian-Georgian war had many lessons but one of the most significant that many post-Soviet states have already drawn is that unless you possess overwhelming numerical superiority, you should form small, highly mobile units, rather than rely on conventional Soviet or NATO operational arrangements.  That would represent a very different force structure than many of the post-Soviet states have and could have domestic consequences as well: such units require that decision-making authority be passed down much further than when militaries are organized in a more conventional way.
That raises issues of command and control.  On the one hand, if the civilian government is confident in the loyalty of its population and officer corps, it will get more force for less investment if it makes this shift.  But on the other, if the regime is not confident of that, then it risks creating a structure to defend against a foreign threat that could become a threat to its own existence at some point in the future.
Basing.  Most of the governments in the post-Soviet space still put most of their forces in bases built during Soviet times.  But if they are threatened by their neighbors or if they want to threaten their neighbors, they will clearly want to base them in a different way, placing units in areas where an invasion might be most likely to take place or where they could launch their own strikes into other states.  
Again, this leaves all the countries in the region in a security trap where actions by one side will generate actions by others that may leave the first group in a less secure position than they were earlier. 
But there is a bigger issue involved as well.  Few of the countries in the region have pre-positioned equipment in anticipation of conflicts, but that is likely to be an increasingly important part of national security calculations.  Given how easy it is for airpower to prevent the deployment of equipment and personnel from existing bases to where they would be needed, moving equipment into arms dumps that could be used in the event of a crisis is likely to be an option that more and more of these states will consider. 
As strategically and tactically useful such moves could be, however, they too have domestic consequences that some of the countries in the region will be sensitive to.  Putting guns and ammunition in particular regions could encourage regional elites to try to seize them should they want to challenge the central government.  Consequently, tracking the way in which these countries make these decisions will say a great deal about the mental national security maps of elites not only internationally but domestically as well.
Weaponry.  Weapons are expensive, and it is thus critical that governments make the right decision as to which ones they will acquire.  Another lesson of the Georgian war is that three types of weaponry are far more important than many had thought.  First of all, helicopters play a greater role against a larger opponent than many had predicted.  Second, both GPS and FOF systems can ensure that one’s own units do not attack each other.  That happened with the Russian military which lacked these identification systems; it did not with the Georgians who had them.  And third, there is a compelling need to ensure the interoperability of weapons and ammunition.  At present, many post-Soviet militaries have a mix of weapons which do not all use the same ammunition, something that undercuts their utility in time of a conflict and creates a logistical nightmare.
But perhaps the most important lessons of the Georgian conflict are what countries do not need, however much many political leaders assume otherwise.  Tanks are an expensive but poor investment as they can be easily disabled but vastly less expensive anti-tank weapons.  APCs need to be well-defended lest they become as they were for Russian officers and men death-traps in which they subsequently refused to ride.  And grenades and mines, however unglamorous they may be, really do work against a stronger opponent.
Finally, there is the issue of illegal weapons.  Both Russian and Georgian forces used cluster bombs.  These can be effective but they are banned by the international community.  Countries who choose to use them are taking a great risk of a propaganda disaster, something both Moscow and Tbilisi have undergone since the conflict ended.  But the most compelling reason not to use them is that they are first and foremost anti-personnel weapons and inflict vicious wounds on the civilian population.
Intelligence.  Given resource problems, all the countries in the region seem certain to step up their intelligence efforts.  The Russian side is vastly ahead in this regard at least at the level of political penetration of other states, but Moscow is behind some of the countries in the region in terms of tactical intelligence.  One of the reasons that Russian forces lost three jets was that the 58th army did not have pilotless drones to conduct intelligence photography deep behind enemy lines.  The Georgians did and thus did not suffer as much from the lack of air power that many outside commentators had expected.  Now Russia has announced that it will purchase drones, and other countries are likely to follow suit.
Such “national technical means” of gathering intelligence, however, are not without risks.  The shooting down of drones can become a casus belli.  At the very least, such events raise the temperature between the states involved.  And such shootdowns are increasingly likely given that military commanders will want the information such drones can provide and will suggest to their civilian superiors that the risks are low.  That is probably true as far as it goes, but if large numbers of countries have drones and if they feel compelled to use them, then there will be more shootdowns and that will create new tensions. 
Obviously, these five factors are not independent of one another.  Governments will choose a mix, but the key fact is that this mix will now be different than it was prior to the Georgian-Russian conflict.  And anyone, analyst or government official or military officer, concerned about national security in the region needs to pay attention as small shifts in one of these areas may lead to tectonic shifts in a very short time.