Since their August, 2008 war in Georgia, Russia has been scrutinizing its performance, looking for useful lessons. For example, the Russians are wondering how things would have gone if the best Georgian troops (2,000 American trained professionals), were not in Iraq when the war was fought. The Americans had not trained the Georgians for a war against invading Russians. That was considered impractical. The entire Georgian armed forces comprise only 35,000 troops, while the Russians had over 100,000 in the area. If the Russians wanted to invade, the best the Georgians could do was kill as many Russians as they could, and then surrender. The 2,000 Georgian troops in Iraq would have helped with that, but not changed the outcome. More importantly, Russia had lots of troops and commanders with years of recent experience in Chechnya.
While the Russians achieved their objectives in 2008, their military experts found a large number of mistakes and lost opportunities. Against a more formidable opponent, these flaws might have led to a defeat, and an ugly one at that. But the Russians knew they were going against an outnumbered opponent who was not equipped or trained to deal with this kind of operation, and did not expect the Georgians to do anything surprising.
On the bright side, the Russian military demonstrated great resourcefulness and innovation before and during the invasion. This included the strategic planning, because the war was a set-up. Russia used only one infantry division for the invasion, and had held training exercises in July. The Russians pulled off a "strategic surprise" against the Georgians, and for this the planners could be proud.
The plan was primarily based on deceiving the Georgians into attacking first. Thus increased border violence by South Ossetian forces caused the Georgians to think they could retake the lost (in 1991) province. Less than a day after the Georgian forces entered South Ossetia, the Russian force of over 20,000 troops (including combat experienced Chechen counter-terror units and North Ossetian militia groups) invaded Georgia. The Georgians were not prepared for this, even though the Russians had been making a lot of noise, for weeks, on the Internet about the growing "crises" in South Ossetia.
By August 8th, the Russian Cyber War preparations became evident, as most Georgian media and government web sites were shut down by Russian attacks. It was the Internet version of the blitzkrieg, and a blow to military and civilian morale in Georgia. On the ground, the combat experience of the Russian troops quickly translated into defeats for inexperienced Georgian troops. Despite several years of training under the supervision of Israeli and American combat veterans, the Georgians were still not as effective as the Russians (who had been fighting in Chechnya for over a decade). American training had concentrated on dealing with peacekeeping and irregular warfare, as the Georgians were encountering with their breakaway provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, as well as Chechen terrorists and Islamic radicals hiding out near the Russian (Chechen) border. Meanwhile, the Georgian troops who were best trained at that were off in Iraq. Georgia also wanted to train its reserve troops to use irregular warfare tactics against an invasion, but this part of their military training and organizing plan had not been implemented.
Although the Georgian anti-aircraft units brought down some Russian jets, the Russians basically ruled the skies and used that to constantly pick apart Georgian units. It was Russian air power that prevented the Georgians from mounting an effective defense. Yet it was the Russian Air Force that got most of the criticism for poor planning and execution. While Georgian ground forces were pushed around by the Russian invasion, Georgian air defenses were noticeably more effective. The Russians admitted 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 (obtained from Ukraine).
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 680 kg (1,500 pound) missiles. The missiles have a 30 kilometer range, and can hit aircraft at up to 23.3 kilometers (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 68 kg (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.
Russian intelligence did not identify and locate these Georgian air defenses. Russian pilots were led to expect that there would be no resistance. The Russian Air Force had not prepared to go after these Georgian systems with anti-radiation missiles and other air-delivered weapons. The Russian Air Force also made little use of air and space photography to scrutinize the battlefield. They discovered, too late, that the abundance of vegetation down there disrupted the use of laser guided bombs. A lack of training in delivering smart bombs and missiles also led to poor performance of these expensive weapons.
The overall commander of Russian forces apparently did not, or could not, get the air force to develop an attack plan that would do it by the book. This would include finding and attacking Georgian headquarters and communications facilities. This left the Georgians able to respond to the Russian attack, and inflict more casualties. Fortunately for the Russians, the Georgians were outnumbered by a force of more experienced Russian ground troops. This masked the failures of the Russian Air Force.
It is interesting that Russia was unable to come up with effective countermeasures against missile systems they had designed. The Russians knew of Ukrainian arms exports to Georgia, and the presence of the SA-11s and SA-15s. This indicates a failure of communication between the SVR (which collects intelligence about foreign nations) and the military high command. No point in collecting all that information, if you don't use it when you have the opportunity.
It turns out that there were numerous failures of intelligence. While the Russians were preparing for action against Georgia, the timing of the Georgian invasion of South Ossetia caught the Russians by surprise. When scrutinized, the Russian commanders in the area were found to have been slow to react. Once the Russian response did kick in, it overwhelmed the Georgians. But, once more, as Russian planners point out, a more numerous or experienced opponent could have defeated the Russians, and all the Russian flaws would have become obvious immediately.
The Russians are eager to fix a lot of these problems, but they are hampered by the presence of many Cold War era officers who came up in an atmosphere of laxness and poor supervision. In short, the "corporate culture" of the Russian military is in disarray. It has to be rebuilt, and Georgia may, or may not, provide the incentive to do so.
Meanwhile, little Georgia, with every incentive to improve, has reorganized to better deal with another Russian invasion.