US Joint Chiefs of Staff Deputy Chairman General James Cartwright stated on March 30 that the US will "soon" begin training Georgian soldiers for "homeland defense." The announcement comes as the most specific indication to date of how the United States plans to assist Georgia's post-war military reforms.
Details about either side's role in this new stage of US-Georgian military cooperation were not immediately available. Gen. Cartwright's March 30-April 2 visit to Georgia is the second such trip by a high-ranking US military official since mid-February.
"We will start with the training," Cartwright announced at a news conference in Tbilisi. "That is the core and the foundation of the activity, but the training will be focused on the defense of Georgia, on its self and internal defense and we will work hard to get both the skill levels that are necessary to do that and work as partners on the equipment necessary."
US assessments of the Georgian military's state of health after its August 2008 war with Russia "have helped us understand what the priorities should be on that equipment, both in what the Georgian have been able to put together on their own . . . what equipment needs to be upgraded and what new types of equipment is necessary for their homeland defense," the general continued. A review of the assessments is ongoing, he indicated.
For the Georgian government, the target of increasingly vociferous opposition attacks for the lost war against Russia, the news is timely. "Of course, an army is not created in three or four years," said President Mikheil Saakashvili. "Of course, the trainings we received in the past years were not meant for large-scale war operations. These were peacekeeping police operations. We are preparing a new -- in terms of quality -- armed forces."
On the to-do list, according to Saakashvili, is "increasing the number of soldiers, increasing the supply of armaments and, most importantly [and] increasing the level of readiness." The president also stressed that the training would help Georgia to expand its participation in the US-led coalition in Afghanistan. Georgian Foreign Minister Grigol Vashadze announced in February that Georgia would be sending one company of troops to Afghanistan. Saakashvili added that he has discussed the issue with US President Barack Obama.
But the two sides' cooperation plan comes with risks. Chances that the United States will supply Georgia with fresh military hardware have sparked multiple warnings from Moscow hawks that such shipments could prompt Russia to take military action again.
Defense Minister Vasil Sikharulidze told EurasiaNet, however, that Georgia is "looking into all options."
Some commentators have been quick to say that Georgia's own heavy investments in defense as well as years of funding and training by the United States have gone up in smoke.
While denying that claim, Georgian defense officials say that before moving on with developing combat capabilities, the military is trying to get its national defense concepts and goals straight.
Defense Ministry insiders say that a new military doctrine will identify open warfare with Russia as the country's primary threat and that military development objectives will be modified accordingly.
One Georgian military official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told EurasiaNet that the previous military doctrine, as well as other strategic papers, contained large chunks "copy-pasted" from the US military doctrine, and had failed to address adequately the sources and nature of national security threats.
That copy-paste approach meant that tactical decisions often happened on the fly during last summer's war with Russia. At the time of the conflict, Georgia "had not developed a comprehensive military doctrine that dictated how it would employ its forces," said Lt. Col. Robert Hamilton, who served as chief of the US Office of Defense Cooperation in Georgia until 2008.
The plan of operations "contained no branches [alternative plans of action -- ed], it designated no reserve force, it contained no concept for gaining and disseminating intelligence, and it contained no defined end state," Hamilton continued. "[N]o written plan with a map overlay was ever distributed to the units which did the fighting."
Tactical mistakes also contributed to Georgian troops' precipitous defeat. In one critical instance, Hamilton related, a unit of the 4th Brigade that was given the mission of securing a key junction northeast of the South Ossetian capital Tskhinvali was ordered to abandon the position and move into Tskhinvali to reinforce Georgian troops there. "This left the critical road junction unsecured and Russian forces were able to move into Tskhinvali unopposed," said Hamilton.
How exactly post-war US military assistance will correct such problems remains unclear. US Vice President Joseph Biden and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have expressed the desire to improve relations with Russia, but said that US ties with regional allies would not be compromised.
The Georgian Ministry of Defense, for its part, has promised it would streamline the organization of the Georgian armed forces, acquire new combat hardware and retrain personnel to tackle the threats posed by the Russian military presence in the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
Defense Minister Sikharulidze, a former Georgian ambassador to Washington, has penned a white paper that says that the ministry will focus on developing C4ISR, a US military term for command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance. Details about the particulars remain outstanding.
The ministry has also said it is developing "a new concept" for its reserve forces. Several who served during the 2008 war have told EurasiaNet that large numbers of reservists loitered aimlessly, futilely awaiting orders, just a few miles away from the scene of a fierce battle. No centralized roster of reservists exists.
How the reforms will handle the sensitive issue of senior appointments also remains in doubt. The March 5 removal of head of the Georgian joint chiefs of staff, Colonel Vladimir Chachibaia, after four months at the post, has resurrected complaints that senior officials are chosen based on personal loyalties. The ministry denies the allegation.
But identifying the enemy is one task already accomplished, military observers say.
A Threat Assessment Paper approved by Saakashvili just months before the August 2008 war opined that "there is little possibility of open and large scale military aggression against Georgia." Primary threats were identified as a spillover from tensions in the Russian-controlled North Caucasus, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and international terrorism.
"You can tell from these papers as well as the trends in the defense system that the Georgian military didn't take Russia seriously," commented military analyst Vakhtang Maisia.
It does now, local observers wryly note.
Giorgi Lomsadze is a freelance reporter based in Tbilisi.