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 15 November 2008
 Air farce
The Russian Air Force didn't perform well during the conflict in South Ossetia

Russia & CIS Observer, 4 (23) November 2008 (http://www.ato.ru/rus/cis/archive/23-2008/)

Konstantin Makienko

The role of aviation in armed conflicts increased steadily over the past few decades and culminated in NATO's Yugoslavia campaign of 1999, which was won exclusively with air strikes. By contrast, the success of Russia's five-day operation in South Ossetia in August 2008 was secured by the decisive actions of airborne units and ground troops. The Russian Air Force, for its part, performed quite poorly and suffered losses that were too heavy for such a brief campaign. This resulted from both the weakness of the Russian Air Force and the fact that Georgia deployed relatively dense, modern air defenses in the conflict zone.

The general plan of Georgia's operation in South Ossetia called for a rapid destruction of the Ossetian armed forces and a lightning capture of the republic's capital city of Tskhinvali well before the Russian army could have a chance to intervene. It appears that during the night from August 7 to 8. Tbilisi intended to deliver strikes on the positions of the Russian peacekeepers and the South Ossetian army in order to paralyze the chain of command. The next objective was to take Tskhinvali during August 8, install a puppet government chaired by Dmitry Sanakoyev (the former South Ossetian prime minister, appointed by the Georgian president in May 2007 as the head of the South Ossetian Provisional Administrative Entity], and bring residents of Georgian enclaves in the republic onto the streets during pro-Georgia mass rallies.

Tbilisi had a good chance of attaining these goals. Even if Moscow was quick enough to react (which proved to be the case), the build-up of Russian troops would proceed very slowly due to the region's complex terrain. Indeed, Russian military convoys were filtering into the conflict zone through the narrow Roki Tunnel, so their strength and firepower were increasing at an extremely slow pace. In this situation, the Russian Air Force with its quick reaction times and powerful strike capability was to provide immediate support to the surrounded peacekeepers and the weak South Os-setian armed groups. Ideally. Russian aviation should have suppressed the Georgian artillery and multiple-launch rocket system positions before the end of August 8. .Another urgent task was to deliver air strikes on the Georgian 4th Infantry Brigade, which was storming Tskhinvali.

Russian aviation attempted to accomplish these objectives, but immediately lost three Sukhoi Su-25 ground-attack aircraft to Georgian anti-air fire. After that, according to eyewitness accounts, there were no Russian aircraft over Tskhinvali on August 8 or the following day that is. during the most critical period of the conflict. In effect, the Russian military command was forced to bring motor-rifle units into battle from the march, without first gaining superiority in numbers and firepower.

The Georgian troops maintained the tactical initiative on the outskirts of Tskhinvali throughout August 9 and even during August 10. What thwarted the Georgian operation in the end was not the Russian Air Force, but the resistance offered by peacekeepers and lightly armed, poorly organized South Ossetian units that stayed behind to defend the capital. (The main armed forces of South Ossetia were at that time concentrated in the settlement of Java to the north of Tskhinvali). Essentially, the Georgian troops failed to take Tskhinvali because they were not prepared psychologically for severe urban fighting.

The Russian Air Force's failure to provide efficient fire support to the ground troops was not just due to the surprisingly strong Georgian air defenses, but also because there was no proper interaction between the Russian air and ground forces, and no modern target indication equipment was available. Both these limitations were later mentioned as some of the conflict's key lessons by Lt. Gen. Vladimir Shamanov, chief of the Russian Armed Forces Directorate of Combat Training and Service of Troops, who had served as a top military commander in Chechnya during the 1995-1996 and 1999-2000 campaigns. Most likely, technological inadequacies and insufficient tactical readiness were not the only factors in the poor performance of Russian military aviation. The ineffectual reforms of the Russian armed forces, which saw army aviation transferred under the Air Force command in 2003-2004, must also have played a role.

One other deficiency of the Russian Air Force demonstrated during the South Ossetian operation was its inability to gain and sustain air superiority over the battlefield. Russian military convoys advancing along narrow mountainous roads were totally exposed to air raids by Georgian ground-attack aviation. There is no evidence that Russian fighters provided air protection for the ground troops. Numerous reports assert that Georgian Su-25 attacks were countered with the help of tactical air defense assets, i.e. self-propelled AA guns and man-portable air defense systems. The low efficiency of the Georgian air raids can be put down exclusively to inadequate pilot training. That said, Georgian Su-25s continued attempted attacks on the Russian troops even on August 11, the last day of combat actions. It is totally unbelievable that the Russian Air Force was unable to establish air superiority almost to the end of the five-day war, despite the fact that the enemy had no fighter aviation.

In the course of the conflict, the Russian Air Force demonstrated a complete inability to suppress enemy air defenses. To be fair, Russian aviation had never before faced such a task. The Georgian troops had at least one battalion (according to some sources, two battalions) of relatively modern Buk-Ml (SA-11) self-propelled SAM systems, at least two battalions (a total of eight units) of Osa-AK (SA-8B) self-propelled SAM systems, and six to 10 of the upgraded Osa-AKM version. They managed to deploy dense air defenses right in the conflict zone, as well as near the Georgian cities of Gori and Tbilisi. On the very first day of combat action, Georgian air defense units inflicted heavy losses on Russian aviation. They shot down up to four war-planes one Tupolev Tu-22M3 strategic bomber and three Su-25 ground-attack aircraft. By the end of the conflict Russia, had lost at least seven warplanes; the figure could exceed 10 if we count the aircraft that returned to base but were damaged beyond repair.

The Georgian air defenses were eventually destroyed by Russian infantry detachments. After the Georgian army's collapse on August 11-12, the Russian troops seized at least six serviceable Buk-Ml systems and up to five intact examples of the Osa-AK/Osa-AK.M. One possible explanation for the Russian Air Force's failure to suppress Georgian air defense is that its pilots most likely had not been practicing such missions as this kind of training had proved irrelevant in both Chechen campaigns. On the other hand, the Russian Air Force found itself pitted against much more advanced air defense systems in Georgia (mostly Buk-M1 s) than NATO pilots had in Iraq and Yugoslavia (obsolete Kub/Kvadrat (SA-6) and even S-125 (SA-3) SAM systems). Although Georgian anti-aircraft weapons ended up in the hands of Russian infantry, there have been reports indicating that the Russian Air Force did manage to suppress Georgian air defense radar stations by the second half of the day on August 11.

The only operations by Russian aviation during the South Ossetian conflict that could be described as moderately successful were strikes on Georgian military and administrative targets. The damage caused by the air strikes was negligible, but they considerably demoralized the enemy. There is no doubt that political considerations restricted the scale of bombardments. For example, Russia abstained from striking on Tbilisi International Airport, which Georgia was using to receive flights bringing servicemen of the 1st Infantry Brigade from Iraq.

Overall, the operation in South Osse-tia highlighted the need for profound modernization of the Russian Air Force. Apart from the procurement of new aircraft (primarily multirole types) and modernization of the existing fleet, the service needs to intensify its combat training, with a special focus on practicing the suppression of enemy air defenses.

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