Georgian Military Modernization: Two Steps Forward, One Step Back


The article focuses on the current modernization of the Georgian military. Whatever happened before the appointment of Levan Izoria, the current Minister of Defense, is history. Izoria was appointed Minister of Defense on 1 August 2016. At a press conference on 7 November 2016, Izoria announced plans to reform the country's armed forces, air force and air defense, but concluded that the construction of a new naval capacity was too costly. The Navy was disbanded in 2009 and merged with the Coast Guard, which is part of the Border Guard Division and reports to the Ministry of the Interior (MIA). It should also be emphasized that Izoria's reform plans were not the first and probably will not be the last. His predecessors tried to pursue the same reform and, idiomatically speaking, “they keep treading on the same rake.”

During the reign of the Georgian Dream Coalition between 2012 and 2016, two ministers resigned, the third was removed from office and the fourth, the current minister Izoria, retained his previous position as minister. It remains to be seen for how long. The frequent change of ministers has hampered efforts to build robust and effective armed forces, as each minister has his or her own vision of the armed forces he or she tried to implement without learning from the mistakes of his or her predecessors.

As a result, the reforms have not yielded tangible results and the country's military capabilities give little hope, even though Georgian Dream's officials claim otherwise. It is not yet clear whether the current reform will be more successful than the previous ones.

The Contours of Reform

During the press conference, Izoria added that the basic training of conscripts will in future be similar to that of professional soldiers, in order to create a larger pool of qualified personnel, which can be used either as contracted servicemen or in the reserves. In the past, army conscripts only exercised logistic and support functions; they were not trained for combat and did not participate in combat. At the same time, Izoria stressed that the army will continue to consist primarily of professional soldiers. Professionals currently account for 90% or around 13,000, all of them deployed in Afghanistan as part of combat operations. However, conscripts currently account for only 10% or around 2,000. For example, the current army has about 15,000 soldiers without the Ministry of Defense and the General Staff personnel, as well as civilian staff of the Ministry of Defense, which according to various open sources consists of 36,000 to 37,000. Izoria also announced plans to optimize the General Staff, the army, the air force, the air-defense forces, and the military police. The plans envisage abolishing an unspecified number of departments within the General Staff and emphasizes the use of combat helicopters and UAVs as there is no Georgian air fleet. Because of this optimization, 1,750 civilian personnel from the MoD and 340 military personnel from the Georgian Armed Forces (GAF) were dismissed in December 2016. Who will supply combat helicopters and UAVs to Georgia is currently unknown, as the West is not yet ready for such deliveries and Israeli companies might not step in as they do not want to provoke Russia’s ire. After the August 2008 war, Israeli companies halted the supply of weapon systems to Georgia, while neighboring Turkey did not provide any arms at all. In the meantime, the number of infantry brigades was cut from five to four. But it is a fact that even nine years since the August 2008 war, the West remains reluctant to sell arms to Georgia, also due to concerns about provoking Russian ire. Thus far, Western reluctance has resulted in serious impairment of the country’s air-defense and anti-tank capabilities. As long as the West is unwilling to sell these weapon systems to Georgia, the Georgian military inventory will consist of obsolete Soviet equipment, some Georgian-made equipment and some Western arms like US-donated helicopters. As a result, the Georgian military remains vulnerable vis-à-vis the heavily armed Russian military stationed in Abkhazia and South Ossetia which has been increased in strength since August 2008. More than 8,000 Russian soldiers are stationed in Abkhazia and South Ossetia – the occupied regions of Georgia. The integration of the Abkhazian and South Ossetian troops under Russian command further increased the numbers and agility of the deployed forces.

Despite Western reluctance to sell arms, it was reported in February 2016 that American military assistance to Georgia, known as Foreign Military Financing (FMF), would decrease under a budget proposal from $30 mln in 2016 to $20 mln in 2017. The 2017 funding is intended “to advance Georgia’s development of forces capable of enhancing security, countering Russian aggression, and contributing to coalition operations. This will include support in areas such as upgrades to Georgia’s rotary wing air transport capabilities, advisory and Defense reform, and modernization of Georgia’s military institutions.” Yet, as late as July 2016, it was not entirely clear what type of weapon systems Georgia would be allowed to acquire as a result of the aforementioned funding. American officials were tight-lipped regarding the provision of weapon systems. Even in September 2017, uncertainty about acquisitions persisted. It appears, however, that JAVELIN ATGMs and F-92 STINGER MANPADS are unlikely to be sold to Georgia. Despite a wealth of information in open sources about Georgia’s likely acquisition of French air-defense systems nothing has materialized thus far. In April 2017, it was reported that Izoria plans to visit France to negotiate with his French counterpart about purchasing air-defense systems.

The final piece of the current reform announces the establishment of reserve forces. Previous ministers of defense have tackled this issue with little success. Another initiative should be taken with a grain of salt: the Reserve Forces. Georgian military expert Vakhtang Maisaya said, “Forming robust military reserve forces remains the most important and challenging step in the army reform. Currently, the main objective should be to make use of the reserves and work out mobilization plans that signal the defensive strength of the country. The government has worked out the concept, and it fully corresponds with NATO standards.” Indeed, in March 2016, Georgia’s top military commanders discussed the mobilization and reserve forces draft concept. According to the concept, the main mission of the GAF reserves is to support the armed forces in wartime, during crisis and in peacetime. The draft includes three categories of the reserve system: army, territorial and specialists’ reserve.

In May 2017, the aforementioned categories were elaborated. The first category is to be composed of demobilized servicemen or servicemen who completed a five-year military contract and are willing to serve for another five years in a reserve unit. The second category is to be the territorial reserve, established on the basis of the existing Georgian National Guard with its current 1,600 active reservists that is used as reserve for the GAF. In the event of hostilities, its members will be deployed only in their home district and serve for five years. The third category is to consist of civilian experts whose knowledge and experience can be useful to the army in peacetime or wartime. The active army reserve is to number 1,500 people, and the territorial reserve will be 10,000 strong. The specialized reserve units will not be limited in size, and will be dynamically formed based on GAF’s developing needs. Unlike the current reserve system, the new concept envisions manning a reserve on a voluntary basis only. Women up to 55 years of age will also be allowed to serve. Under this proposed system, members of the reserve who sign a five-year contract will undergo an annual 45-day retraining course and will receive financial compensation equaling 20% of the salary of a military service member of similar rank and grade. Details surrounding the refreshing course are not clear and, as a result, there are questions as to whether or not the proposed idea is feasible. Izoria said that if the legislature adopted this reserve concept, a ‘pilot’ program for selecting participants and concluding service contracts would start in 2018. It is a good idea to carefully evaluate the pilot program before continuing with the rest of the aforementioned reserve components.

Back in 2012, a similar ‘pilot’ project was launched and 13,000 volunteer reservists (of an envisaged 100,000) were recruited. At the time, the new recruits accounted for less than 1% of Georgia’s defense budget ($3.5M). The author does not know whether Izoria took recent experience into account and it is unclear whether resources allocated to the reservists is money well spent. There is one very important point on which the author and Maisaya agree, with the latter stating, “Georgia still does not have an overarching comprehensive military strategy to replace the now outdated one adopted after the August 2008 war and that would define the role of the reservist force vis-à-vis the regular army.” And, as long as such a strategy has not been prepared, reforms of the reserve forces are likely to fail.

To conclude, there are currently more questions than answers. What is clear is that even the good intentions in the West translating into training of the GAF for missions in Afghanistan is not sufficient help for Georgia at this crucial juncture for training in homeland defense. The meagre defense budget and its improper allocation, namely 67% for salaries and social benefits, while the rest goes towards military equipment and so on, impair the country's abilities to purchase urgently needed modern arms. Western reluctance to sell modern arms lessens the ability of GAF to defend Georgia. Whether or not Izoria’s negotiations would ultimately lead to the signing of a contract for the purchase of French-made air-defense systems is not a foregone conclusion. Thus far, Emmanuel Macron, President of France, has not given any hints about the signing of a contract. Therefore, the issue of Georgian air-defense capability remains unresolved and the country remains unprotected. In addition, even if the aforementioned reform with the reserve forces looks great on paper, there is no guarantee of its success. It should be remembered that past experience showed that reform of the reserve forces ended in failure and no conclusions were drawn from that experience. And finally, it remains unknown whether or not the current Minister of Defense will retain his position, or be dismissed as his predecessors were, in favor of another wave of reforms to be initiated.

Eugene Kogan

08 January 2018 17:19