Since its August 2008 war with Russia, Georgia has sought to restore and improve its air-defense capabilities. The South Caucasus republic is consequently purchasing an advanced Israeli anti-aircraft system from a state-owned company, whose products were notably battle-tested against Russian aircraft in Syria. Georgian officials signed an agreement on September 11, in Tbilisi, with representatives from the defense concern Rafael Advanced Defense Systems, a limited liability company of the Israeli Ministry of Defense. Specific details of the deal were not released, however. Beyond the Russian government’s usual concerns about changes to military forces in post-Soviet countries, the contract has also raised anxieties in Moscow about the Israeli defense firm’s previous activities in neighboring Azerbaijan as well as the possibility that the experience of targeting Russian military assets in Syria will be incorporated into the specific systems provided to Georgia (Vzglyad, September 13).
The purchase is rooted in history. At the beginning of the Georgian-Russian 2008 conflict, Georgia was armed mainly with Soviet-era S-125M and Buk-M1 medium-range air defense systems, short-range Osa-AK systems and Strela anti-aircraft man-portable air-defense systems (MANPADS) (Politika Segodnya, September 15). By the end of the week, despite inflicting losses on Russian aircraft, the Georgian systems were overwhelmed; Russia destroyed all five of Georgia’s Osa-AK radars, nearly all of the Buk-M1 systems and several anti-aircraft guns (Voennoe Obozrenie, August 13).
However, Georgia swiftly absorbed the conflict’s lessons. One of the Georgian military’s highest priorities became reforming its poorly performing Soviet-era air defenses, which could be augmented with more advanced technology purchased abroad. The country purchased its first foreign air-defense components before the end of 2008—the Spyder medium-range air-defense system from Israel. This was supplemented in 2017 by France’s Mistral short-range air-defense system. Additionally, Ukraine sold long-range radars to Georgia (Argumenty Nedeli, September 14).
At present the Russian government’s primary concerns seem to be twofold: cost and effectiveness. First is the question of whether Georgia will have sufficient financial resources to create a full-fledged, capable state-of-the-art air-defense system by purchasing foreign technology. Russian military analyst Viktor Murakhovskii has opined that the Israeli-Georgia contract could impact Georgia’s state budget to an unsustainable level (Kadara.ru, September 17).
Moscow’s second concern is whether Georgia’s new air defenses will incorporate Rafael Advanced Defense Systems’ combat experience gleaned from the Israeli Defense Forces’ (IDF) deployments. Notably, Israel tested its latest anti-aircraft assets against Russian MiG-29, Su-30SM and Su-35S jets deployed in Syria, as well as on Syrian Air Force MiG-29 fighters (Avia.pro, September 17). If the Georgian system incorporates IDF analytical software, it could provide the Georgian military a significant tactical advantage in future confrontations with Russian forces. Rafael and the Georgian defense ministry also signed a $12 million contract for maintaining the Spyder air-defense system and the training of personnel (Profil, September 15).
Georgia’s interest in Israeli assistance for upgrading the country’s air defenses is not limited to the Rafael contracts. In announcing the agreement, the Georgian Ministry of Defense’s press office reported that Defense Minister Irakli Garibashvili also discussed with representatives of the Israeli company Elbit Systems the potential for concluding a contract to modernize Georgia’s Air Force. “The parties discussed issues of equipping aircraft with modern electronic systems, which will allow the Georgian Air Force to achieve compatibility with NATO [North Atlantic Treaty Organization] standards,” the statement reads (9 Kanal Izrail, September 13).
Retired Colonel Viktor Baranets, a columnist for Komsomolskaya Pravda, in commenting on Georgia’s armaments modernization program, observes that while some analysts believe the upgrades presage Georgia contesting sovereignty over Abkhazia and South Ossetia, in fact, “[t]here is much more propaganda than common sense in the statement that Georgia will be able to challenge the Russian Federation. The question here is different: Tbilisi is becoming more and more tied to NATO” (Polit Rossiya, September 14). Another Russian military expert was even more dismissive. Colonel (ret.) Viktor Litovkin labeled the development little more than “an advertisement for Israeli weaponry that is very far from reality” (Ekonomika Segodnya, September 15).
Georgia is the only South Caucasus republic with close ties to NATO and which has made consistent efforts to join the alliance, unlike its post-Soviet neighbors. A key element of Georgia’s persistent Euro-Atlantic integration security goals includes shedding Soviet-era military equipment in favor of Alliance-compatible armaments. One advantage that the Russian forces had in 2008 was that they were effectively neutralizing their own equipment, an edge that will be lost with Georgia’s Israeli system purchase. Whether the additions will assist the Georgian Air Force to better its 2008 performance in a potential future conflict with Russia of course remains to be seen. But the Israeli purchase could clearly give Tbilisi access to the technological battlefield lessons of the Middle East’s most combat-capable Air Force, which has fought and downed a number of Russian-supplied aircraft of Moscow’s regional client states.
For Georgia, a foretaste of such a possible future conflict is being provided by neighboring Azerbaijan and Armenia, which have again escalated their so-called “frozen” dispute over Karabakh into armed exchanges. On September 27, the first day of overt hostilities, the Ministry of Defense of the Azerbaijani Republic announced that during the first day of its “lightning-fast counter-offensive,” “12 units of Osa anti-aircraft missile systems of the Armenian air-defense units were destroyed…” (Mod.gov.az, September 27). Notably, Baku has been an important customer of various Israeli (as well as other Western and Russian) weapons systems (see EDM, June 19, 2018 and January 21, 2019). While the eventual outcome of the renewed Karabakh conflict remains to be seen, the confrontation between the two South Caucasus combatants’ air assets and radar systems will surely be studied closely by both Georgia and Russia for potential insights into their own evolving standoff.