Cold Warriors and the Georgian Crisis

Russia's bait and switch plan using South Ossetia militiamen to goad the Georgian Army into an ill-advised attack and then ride to the rescue of its newly minted Russian citizens, was a masterful operation using all of the tools in the combined arms and services toolbox.  And while there will be no new Cold War, the Russian offensive into Georgia has revealed that despite our individual unit superiority, our military is no longer the global hyper-power as touted by the Pentagon's PR machine. 

Russia went into Georgia to accomplish its regional goals simply because Putin realized that a weakened West could only respond with a lot of shouting and diplomatic finger-pointing.

Debate continues on even the basic issues of whether or not  Georgia is even worth defending to retain as a valued ally; I happen to think that beyond any discussions of promoting democracy, that we are perilously close to losing a key geo-strategic linchpin in the GWOT and a vital roadblock with which to counter Putin's brand of resource nationalism. 

Many urge the West to get serious about rebuilding their militaries to deal with the situation.  This will be tough to do since the West has all but ignored the lessons of combined arms warfare in the years after the Cold War.   Witness Germany's proposed garage sale of Leopard II main battle tanks to Turkey a few years ago.  We must realize that institutionally, the military and their adolescent cohorts in the legislatures of the US and Europe are equally responsible for our lack of preparedness to militarily play the Great Game.

In the last several years, the Cold War itself has become a pejorative term for old fogey, ancient warrior, unthinking robot, geo-political simpleton -- you get my drift.  In fact, Army Training and Doctrine Command sent out its guidance four years ago that we must divest ourselves  of all of those old Cold War tactics, techniques and procedures (TTP).  Essentially, everything related to the Cold War must go.  To which I would ask, like what -- defeating the enemy using all the means at hand?

The messengers went out to the Army's service schools inculcating a new breed of Soldiers to not look back at what the cavemen had accomplished.  Perhaps these revisionist history and diversity sessions were well-intentioned.  But they nevertheless came across as classes in generational disrespect instead of acknowledging the Cold Warriors' achievements and victories in battle.

The popular notion that the Cold War was won almost without a shot being fired is misleading. It was obviously not a general conflict, but a global cat-and-mouse game which inevitably produced real casualties.

There were, in fact, plenty of shots fired; on the training and maneuver ranges, during reconnaissance overflights (Francis Gary Powers, anyone?), while protecting our installations, and during regional proxy wars that the powers that be would like you to forget.  If these engagements don't get your attention, how about this: the Cold Warriors have in fact gone into a real hot war.

In terms of the armed forces' organization, equipment, and training, Desert Shield and Desert Storm saw the pure raw power generated by modern combined arms forces as they outmaneuvered and outfought Saddam's army.  This wasn't a pushover because the Iraqis were a complete bunch of bumpkins; it was a victory because Saddam took on the best trained and equipped Coalition on the face of the planet.  The Cold Warriors had gone hot, and well, what did the world expect?  That we would fret and wring our hands over every Hellfire strike or neighborhood raid like they do now?

Desert Storm was the real dagger in the heart of Soviet communism and it was delivered by the Cold Warriors who built upon the foundation of decades of vigilance and preparation.  The Soviet Union was desperately trying to influence the crisis while salvaging one of their client states and best customers in Saddam Hussein.  At one point, Iraq's armaments consisted of 57 percent Russian produced weapons.  That's a lot of revenue down the drain if the Coalition attacked.  While Gorbachev stubbornly held on to the idea of a viable USSR, then-Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze resigned in December 1990 to leave Tarik Aziz alone at the bargaining table in a futile effort to convince Secretary of State James Baker to call off the Coalition.

While we were able to gauge relative strengths globally and deploy an entire Army corps from Europe to the Middle East to ensure victory, the Soviets were rendered irrelevant; unable to muster or move trained forces to the battle area.  This was a scenario that would come back to haunt us in 2008.

Almost immediately after the ODS victory parades in Washington, DC and NYC, the intelligentsia proceeded to cheapen our Cold War victory.  Sober thought pieces appeared in the nation's newspapers philosophizing on the reasons for the demise of the Soviet Union.  Despite just having witnessed the awesome display of combat power in the Gulf, deep thinkers ruminated on the favorite idea of the day that Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Marines didn't matter; it was the only the economic factors that caused the Soviet empire to dissolve from within.  One writer even went so far as to proclaim that it was US-made blue jeans that had a more significant impact than the deployment of Pershing II missiles or the refitting of Army units with the new M1 tanks and Bradley Fighting Vehicles.

The American left has always had a soft spot for the USSR, and in its death throes, continued to invent excuses for its failures much as it has been doing since the 1930s.  Today is no different.  Now we have TV shows to thank for winning the Cold War.  While you are admiring Larry Hagman for our Cold War victory, don't forget to thank those who froze their hind ends off on the DMZ in Korea on the East German border for several decades.

Ironically, Russia has just shown off its capabilities. The Russian tanks of August and airborne units that just invaded Georgia went on a general offensive in some of the most difficult terrain on Earth.  The combined arms team has again made its mark in a grand fashion -- even over the mountain passes of the Caucasus.  And unlike our incomplete victory in the Gulf War, the Russians exercised their power to utterly defeat their enemies and to destroy the Georgian infrastructure.

The question then comes up: why has it been so painful and so long to achieve a similar victory in Iraq?  A large part of the answer can be found in one of the most incomprehensible shifts in warfighting philosophy during the 90s drawdown.  That time saw not only a severe reduction in manpower and capabilities, but also witnessed an Army ignoring the inherent fighting ability of the combined arms team while simultaneously refusing to resource its operations, instead preferring to tout the benefits of going light.

Later, in the aftermath of victory in OIF, the leadership in theater was reluctant to commit the heavy combined arms team even though the means were at hand to pursue and destroy enemy forces moving into the Sunni Triangle.  One gets the impression that what should have been a basic employment of forces is now in the "too hard to do" category.

In a then-hotly debated article for Military Review at the end of 2005, Brigadier Nigel Aylwin-Foster of the British Army wrote about changing the US Army so it would be more proficient at conducting counter-insurgency operations.  I find much to argue with the good general on COIN theory and practice, but overlooked is his assertion that the problem is not that we are refusing to divest ourselves from the Cold War, but quite the opposite, that the Army ‘de- professionalised' during the 1990s.  He says that the

"...culmination of the Army's post Vietnam re-professionalisation came in the `91 Gulf War, when the Army was probably 'the most integrated and professional yet produced by the USA.  However, over the next 6-8 years it became more bureaucratised, centralised and correspondingly less professional.  It was just starting to recover from this when 9/11 happened and it became unavoidably committed to such extensive and challenging operations."

In other words, the leadership has become bogged down in minutiae and has failed to adapt according to tried and true warfighting principles.  Iraq really isn't an argument about COIN versus conventional war; it's a failure of the profession of arms to do what is right to achieve victory.  "Improvise, overcome, and adapt" has become "regroup, do another plan, and then re-train ad infinitum."

The US military's reaction to Russia's attack is all too typical.  In Patrick Casey's blog from August 15th, he relates an AEI event where Lt. Col. Bob Hamilton of the U.S. Army, who had just returned from Tbilisi, said,

"...the American capacity-building program in Georgia has been focused on developing the skills necessary for conducting counterinsurgency and counterterrorism missions -- not for prosecuting a "full-spectrum maneuver war." An inexperienced senior leadership corps, limited command and control capabilities, and a severe numerical disadvantage against Russia further hindered the Georgian military."

This is as much an excuse for the US assistance effort as it is for Georgia's Army; that is, they just weren't trained in the right form of tactics for a specific situation.  Lt. Col. Hamilton's view that they were trained only for COIN is wrong; basic combined arms training did take place.  In reality, Georgia's military was built around the logistically cheapest solution possible to satisfy a GWOT requirement to support the Coalition in Iraq, and secondarily provide a springboard for NATO membership.  There was not an intensive, long-term effort to develop a modern warfighting institution.  Its four operational brigades were primarily straight-leg infantry with only one composite tank-mechanized battalion, which could not hope to match its Russian counter-part in numbers, in maneuver proficiency, or command and control (we provide all the C2 the Georgians in Iraq need, you see).

Today, the US military does not approach the problem from an operational perspective, but rather from an inside the beltway program analyst viewpoint.  If funding was cut from GWOT for Georgia's military establishment, the Pentagon reaction would have been to find another partner for the Coalition, but it would largely ignore the significance of losing a valuable ally in the geo-strategic Caucasus.

Lt. Col. Hamilton's rationalization of Georgia's defeat shows that we are a personification of Rainman.  If everything is in place, the terrain is just right, and the enemy cooperates, then we'll do just fine. If these conditions aren't met, well it's time to fund another study, and anyway it's the President's fault that we're fighting there in the first place.

There are more questions than answers at the moment concerning the political- military miscalculations involved in this tragedy.  For example, the lack of warning, or perhaps the lack of providing the information to Georgia's government, or maybe that President Saakashvili ignored the warnings are all possibilities which should be examined.  An army just doesn't swoop in with a couple of motorized rifle division equivalents with airborne units in a day without some pre-positioning.  The signs have been evident for weeks with the typical ploy which entails mobilization for large-scale exercises used as a cover, and then remaining in the area after the exercise is complete.

Yet, as I cautioned at the beginning of this article, there will be no renewed Cold War as we once knew it.  Russia certainly wants to regain control of the "near-abroad" - those countries that once were part of the Soviet Union.  But Ukraine is a much different problem for the Russian military.  And as mentioned in other pieces in AT, the demographic problems the Russians are facing are huge.  Not only do they not have replacement birth rates, but military age males are suffering from HIV/AIDS and multi-drug resistant TB at ever increasing rates.  If Russian PR is to be believed, the stuff you hear about "re-structuring" the Russian military into a smaller, more efficient force is because they can't staff the units they have now.  But as Georgian veterans of the fighting in the 90s can attest, the Russian units' battle drills are quick and violent - they will hold the field of battle come hell or high water if the opposition show any signs of weakness.

Our problem is that we choose not fix the disastrous policies of the drawdown and to build a force to protect the democracies we have helped to develop, and to guard what is clearly in our geo-strategic interest.  Criticize the President  if you must.  But don't forget a military and Congressional establishment hell-bent on achieving US military irrelevancy beyond Iraq and Afghanistan. They are concerned instead with the latest round of DoD earmarks. 

It's time to regain our Cold Warrior mentality and get back in the game.

Tony George is a pseudonym