July 13, 2009: While Georgian ground forces were pushed around by the Russian invasion last August, Georgian air defenses appeared to have been noticeably effective. But, it turns out, so were Russian air defenses, especially against their own aircraft.
The Russians admitted, at the time, to losing four aircraft (three Su-25 ground attack bombers and a Tu-22 bomber flying a reconnaissance mission.) Most, or all, appear to have been brought down by the SA-11 BukM1 surface-to-air missile systems (which Georgia had obtained from Ukraine).
But now a Russia military journal (Moscow Defense Brief) makes the case, using official records, that six aircraft (three Su-25s, one Tu-22M3 and two Su-24s) were lost. Russian analysts now believe that two, or even three, of these aircraft were brought down by friendly fire. It is believed that only two of the lost aircraft can be definitely attributed to Georgian air defenses. The problem here was that Russian air defense troops often fired on Russian aircraft, believing they were Georgian.
The Russian Air Force was blamed, last year, for sending its aircraft against Georgia with little preparation and planning. Making sure that all air defense weapons (except the shoulder fired missiles) were prepared to use the IFF (Identify, Friend or Foe) in Russian aircraft, would have avoided some of the friendly fire. But some of the Russian aircraft were brought down by shoulder fired missiles, which do not use IFF, and others were damaged by machine-gun fire from the ground.
Both sides used the same air defense missile systems (the SA-11 and Tor-M1). The SA-11 is the successor to the SA-6, which did so much damage to the Israeli Air Force during the 1973 war. The SA-11 launchers are self-propelled and carry four 1,500 pound missiles. The missiles have a 30 kilometer range, and can hit aircraft at up to 72,000 feet. The missiles move at about 2,900 kilometers an hour. The battery radar, which is also self-propelled, can detect aircraft at up to 85 kilometers away. The system can be set up and ready to fire in five minutes. The missile has a 150 pound warhead, that is triggered by a radar proximity fuze.
The Georgians also have some Tor-M1 systems, also obtained from Ukraine. Also known to NATO as the SA-15 Gauntlet, it has a maximum range of 12 kilometers. It is only effective up to 6,000 meters altitude. The system was designed as a successor to the SA-N-8 Gecko. Each launcher carries eight missiles, and it is claimed to be capable of engaging two targets simultaneously. The system was designed to be a tactical battlefield air-defense system, designed to take out close-air-support planes like the A-10 or tactical fighter-bombers like the F-4, F-16, and F-18.
These two systems are supposed to use IFF and be made aware of friendly flight operations. But, as was revealed last year, the Russian air force planners didn't do much planning, and had little control over the friendly anti-aircraft forces. The Russian General Staff recently repeated denials that they had lost any aircraft to friendly fire during the Georgia operation.