Tuesday, September 02, 2008

The Quality of Quantity

Analyzing Russia's quick victory in its military campaign against Georgia, UPI analyst Martin Seiff notes that Moscow employed significant numbers of older weapons, including Cold War-era tanks.

The effective use of decades-old Russian T-72 main battle tanks in the brief conflict with Georgia again shows how supposedly obsolete weapons can still play a potent and even decisive role in modern war.

The Russian army did not rely exclusively on its 30-year-old T-72s. State-of-the-art T-90 main battle tanks also were identified during Russia's brief but highly effective five-day drive into the former Soviet republic of Georgia last month.

And as Seiff notes, the tactics employed by Russian forces were predictable, yet effective:

The Russians pushed ahead with overwhelming concentration of force, according to classic Carl von Clausewitz principles, using artillery, tactical air support for ground forces and a mix of older T-72 MBTs and modern ones backed up with overwhelming forces of highly mobile infantry.

Special forces were used effectively to pre-emptively seize potential bottleneck positions in the heavily forested Caucasus Mountains to prevent Georgian forces from slowing down the Russian drive.

In all, about 10,000 troops, still a very small proportion of the Russian armed forces, were used in the operation.

As we have noted before in these columns, supposedly obsolete weapons systems can find surprisingly long leases of renewed life carrying out missions far different from the ones for which they were originally intended.

We don't disagree with Mr. Seiff's basic premise. With the right upgrades--and employment strategy--old weapons can gain a new lease on life, performing missions never envisioned when they first rolled off the assembly line. The Navy's Iowa-class battleships of World War II were brought out of moth balls in the 1980s, resurrected as cruise missile and gun platforms that performed admirably during Operation Desert Storm.

While the battle wagons are now retired, Air Force B-52 bombers will remain in service for at least another two decades, 60 years after the last one was delivered by Boeing. Thanks to precision weapons, the Buff can now perform close air support for troops in contact, a far cry from the nuclear strike mission for which they were originally designed.

But the longevity of a weapon system is also dependent (to some degree) on circumstance and technical innovation, something that receives only passing mention in Seiff's analysis. The RAF Hurricanes he mentions became valuable during the Battle of Britain because of the advent of radar.

Thanks to that invention, British controllers were able to determine the size and heading of Luftwaffe formations as they approached England, allowing them to direct the older Hurricanes against enemy bombers, while more capable Spitfires did battle with German fighters.

Similarly, the B-52's long life is the result of several factors, ranging from its massive bomb load to the development of cruise missiles, and (more recently) the introduction of satellite-guided weapons. Introduction of air-launched cruise missiles allowed the Buff to shift to a stand-off strategic role, in an era when Soviet air defenses made penetration missions almost impossible.

Twenty years later, the decision to put JDAM and other satellite-guided weapons on B-52s opened up additional missions, giving the aging bomber new roles in the War on Terror. In Vietnam, Buff missions against Viet Cong targets were often ridiculed as "swatting flies with a sledge hammer." But with precision munitions, the B-52 has become adept at hitting tactical targets with deadly accuracy.

To some degree, the Russians deserve credit for utilizing their older tanks effectively. But their success in Georgia was also a product of circumstance. Against a foe with vastly fewer personnel and limited air, armor, artillery and air defense assets, Russia's numerical superiority (and its firepower advantage) would almost certainly prove decisive.

So, why didn't the same assets produce similar results in Chechnya? For starters, Moscow tried to use "Fulda Gap" tactics in an urban environment. Chechen fighters attacked "from above," employing anti-tank weapons against the tops of tanks and infantry fighting vehicles, where their armor is thinnest. They also used urban cover to maximum advantage against dismounted infantry, to maximum advantage.

Russia clearly learned from its Chechen debacle, rolling through settled areas in Georgia--and occupying them--before rebels could dig in and counter-attack. Better-trained troops were also employed in the Georgian operation. Along with special forces, Moscow deployed at least two airborne divisions, utilizing those elite troops to spearhead the assault.

But if war is ultimately a numbers game, then Russia held the upper hand in crushing Georgian resistance. In that respect, Moscow's forces were following the dictum of Joseph Stalin, who observed (famously) that "quantity has a quality all its own."


davod said...

I read an article the other day which said the Georgians parachuted troops into an area to destroy a bridge. They were all killed. They did however destroy the bridge which held up the advance by 48 hours.

davod said...


I should say the Russians had overwhelming air power which does make a difference.

SMSgt Mac said...

I think this also highlights one of the best reasons for a country to have a quick-deployment land mine capability in case of land invasion. Prime users would be any country who shares a border with Russia or a DMZ with the NoKo's.