Georgian conflict may trigger Russian fleet upgrade

Moscow
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Four confirmed aircraft losses during a five-day air war with Georgia suggest that Russia underestimated its former ally's air defence capabilities, and the case for modernisation of the Russian air force fleet has been strengthened, say analysts.

The air war raged between 8 and 12 August after Georgia's attempts to regain control of separatist region South Ossetia drew a heavy response from Russia, which sent troops both to South Ossetia and to a second breakaway region, Abkhazia. Russian president Dmitry Medvedev declared an end to operations on 12 August. However, there are ongoing reports of further ground incursions.

The Russian defence ministry has acknowledged the loss of four aircraft. These comprise one Tupolev Tu-22M Backfire bomber (flying a reconnaissance mission, according to the ministry) and three Sukhoi Su-25 Frogfoot strike aircraft. Georgia has claimed that "18 or 19" Russian aircraft were downed.

russian air force su-25s 
 © Vladamir Karnozov

Tasked with disabling Georgia's defence infrastructure, the Russian air force deployed Su-25 attack aircraft and Mil Mi-24 assault helicopters to provide close-air support for advancing troops. Mi-8s were deployed to transport troops and supplies and in medical evacuation. Interdiction and deep strikes were carried out by Sukhoi Su-24 frontal bombers. Airlift was provided by Ilyushin Il-76s, which delivered paratroopers, ammunition and supplies to Russian bases at Valikavkaz and Mozdok. Tu-22MR spy aircraft, as well as Tu-22 bombers, were also deployed.

However, the performance of the Russian air force was "far from ideal," according to Konstantin Makienko, deputy head at Moscow's Centre for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies (CAST). He cites reliance on "old hardware" as a limiting factor. "Its main workhorses of this war have been Su-25, Su-24M, Il-76, Mi-24 and Mi-8 aircraft developed and built back in Soviet times," he says. "It could be expected that... the deficiencies highlighted during the conflict will lead to a boost in the Russian defence spending on modernisation of its armed forces and air force."

Georgia's air force fleet, which includes Su-25s and Mi-24s, is similar in composition, if not scale, to Russia's, a reflection of its past status as a Soviet republic. However, defence analyst Francis Tusa suggests that while Georgia is likely to have "a great deal of knowledge on how the Russians work", Russia may not have kept abreast of changes in Georgia's military structure. "Do remember that there have been NATO training missions to Georgia this decade," he says. "Likewise, Georgia has been buying some Israeli systems." These include Elbit Hermes 450 unmanned air vehicles, at least three of which have been downed by Russian forces over recent months.

Georgia's defensive capabilities may have initially proved more robust than anticipated against a numerically superior foe, says Tusa, "unless we are assuming that all four shoot-downs were the result of bad piloting and tactics". He adds that he would not rule out "a certain degree of arrogance" on the part of Russia.

Noting Russia's desire to "reinforce its strategic reach over the Caucusas", Tusa raises the prospect that clashes with Ukraine may be next. A dispute has flared between Russia and Ukraine over Russia's deployment of its Black Sea fleet (based at the Ukrainian port of Sevastopol) during the conflict with Georgia.