A week into its Georgia adventure, Russia is not only taking a beating in the court of world opinion, it has also suffered some black eyes on the battlefield.
Our friends at Strategy Page were among the first to detail Russian air losses during the bombing campaign against Georgian targets. Since the onset of Moscow's military operation, Georgian air defense crews claim to have shot down at least 14 Russian airplanes. That figure is exaggerated, but Moscow has admitted it lost four warplanes--three SU-25 "Frogfoot" attack aircraft and a TU-22M "Backfire" bomber.
More embarrassing, the jets were shot down with Russian-designed air defense systems, most notably the SA-11 "Gadfly." First introduced in the 1980s, the SA-11 is the successor to the mobile SA-6 "Gainful" surface-to-air missile system that wreaked havoc with Israeli forces during the 1973 Yom Kippur War.
The SA-11 is highly mobile and has been updated over the past 20 years. Georgia obtained a small number of Gadfly batteries from Ukraine in recent years, and when the conflict with Moscow erupted earlier this month, the SA-11 became a primary defense against Russian air attacks.
Additionally, Tblisi purchased the SA-15 "Gauntlet" from Ukraine, to bolster its short-range air defenses. The SA-15 (dubbed the Tor-M1 by the Russians) is the same air defense system that Moscow sold to Iran last year. Despite its limited range (6 miles), the SA-15 is effective against tactical aircraft, cruise missiles and even some types of precision-guided munitions. By comparison, the SA-11 has a maximum range of 21 miles, and can engage targets at higher altitudes.
As Strategy Page notes, Moscow was well aware that Georgia had purchased advanced SAMs from Ukraine. And, Russian military experts know the systems well, since they were originally built by Soviet-era design bureaus, and have been in service with Russia's military for many years.
With that level of knowledge, you'd think the General Staff would have devised appropriate counter-measures for its bomber and attack aircraft. While the missile systems may have been modified by Ukraine or the Georgians, it shouldn't be that difficult for Moscow to figure out the upgrades, and make the necessary tactical adjustments.
In fairness, we should note that the number of Russian aircraft shot down so far is relatively small, in comparison to the total sortie count. Still, the losses reveal weaknesses in Russian ISR (apparently, they're having a hard time keeping track of those Georgian SAMs), and efforts to suppress enemy air defenses. We haven't seen any numbers yet, but it would be interesting to know how many SA-11 and SA-15 radars and launchers have survived Moscow's opening onslaught, and are now waiting to engage other Russian aircraft.
As the U.S. discovered in the two Gulf Wars and Operation Allied Force, keeping tabs of mobile SAMs is a tough business. The advent of armed UAVs has made that process a bit easier, allowing persistent surveillance of the battlefield, and the ability to strike quickly if a high-value target--like a mobile SAM--is located.
We're guessing that the Russians are facing problems similar to what we experienced in Desert Storm--trying to reconcile an ever-changing ELINT picture against reporting from aircrews and imagery assets, then trying to get munitions on those targets in a timely manner.
Making matters worse, there are plenty of places in the Georgian countryside for those surviving SAMs to hide. Use of emissions control (EMCON) procedures, along with camouflage, concealment and deception techniques (CC&D) will improve survival prospects for SA-11 and SA-15 crews.
And where do you suppose the Georgians learned the art of military deception? From the Russians, of course.
Along with its aircraft losses, Moscow also suffered a near-calamity on the Black Sea, during last weekend's battle with Georgian patrol craft. Galrahn at Information Dissemination has a new account, provided by a Russian sailor who fought in the engagement. He has posted similar information at the Danger Room.
New details have emerged that shed a bit of light on the action. A sailor interviewed in the Sevastopol on Wednesday gave the local press his recollection of the action. Here's my amateur translation:
"We took up station guarding the opposed landing on the Abkhaz shore when all of a sudden four high speed targets were detected. We sent out an IFF signal and the targets didn't react. Receiving a command from the flagship, we got into formation and right at that moment the unidentified targets opened fire on the ship formation and flagship. The cruiser was damaged and a small fire broke out aboard. Then, fearing for seaworthiness, the flagship withdrew from the firing area." - the sailor said.
"Right then the small missile boats clearly fired," the participant continued. "Taking up position, our MRK launched a "Malakhit" (SS-N-9) anti-surface missile, which literally cut the lead ship, the Tbilisi, to ribbons.
After that, fire was shifted to the rest of the Georgian ships. Another ship was damaged, we couldn't finish it off, allowing it to leave the scene under its own power."
In other words, four out-gunned Georgian patrol boats managed to sneak past the Russian defensive screen and damage the flagship, which was forced out of the engagement. Not exactly a stellar moment for Mr. Putin's...err, Mr. Medvedev's Navy.
Of course, there's a lesson here for other fleets, including our own. In littoral waters (or other cramped naval environments), small craft can pose a considerable threat, hiding in coastal clutter or bad weather before staging surprise attacks against more powerful adversaries. The Black Sea engagement again highlights the importance of air cover, ISR and patrol craft, as part of a naval strike group.