On March 6, a modernized Georgian Su-25UB Grach (NATO classification: “Frogfoot”) ground-attack/close air support (CAS) jet, successfully completed a post-repair test flight (Business-partner.ge, March 6). The reconstruction and modernization of Georgia’s fleet of Su-25 aircraft is being carried out in cooperation with Tbilisi Aircraft Manufacture (Tbilaviamsheni, or TAM) and the State Military Scientific-Technical Center “Delta,” under the supervision of the Ministry of Defense. The Georgian Air Force is currently armed with a dozen Su-25 aircraft: six Su-25UBs as well as six newer Su-25KM variants, christened the “Mimino.” None of them have flown in three years—since 2018. The status of Georgia’s air force pilot corps is categorized as “active reserve” (Kvirispalitra.ge, March 6).
The modifications Georgia is making to its Su-25 fleet will improve the jets’ combat as well as pilot-training capabilities. Subsequent test flights on each aircraft will be carried out in stages, according to the schedule specified in the contract.
In order to improve the country’s Air Force as well as aviation manufacturing sector, the Ministry of Defense of Georgia and TAM signed an agreement in July 2020 that envisages the modernization and overhaul of both the Su-25UBs and Su-25KMs. The process began with the renovation of the Aviation Park in August 2020. The overhaul of the aircraft owned by the Defense Forces will be completed by the end of 2022. At the same time, pilots and technical staff are undergoing new training, including with the support of friendly and partner countries—notably, Ukraine and Israel (Wirtualna Polska, March 8).
Speaking at a parliamentary hearing on February 21, Georgian Minister of Defense Juanshen Burchuladze emphasized that his priority will be the successful continuation of the process of modernizing the country’s military air service: “In the coming years, we will have a fully restored and rehabilitated military aviation park,” Burchuladze said (1tv.ge, February 21). The minister also reminded the assembled legislators that the Georgian Defense Forces have already received French-made air-surveillance radars, a mobile command post and Mistral-3 air-defense missiles (Kommersant, July 12, 2015). But the main priority remains on improving Georgia’s combat aviation.
The initiator behind the plans to refurbish the Su-25s was Burchuladze’s predecessor as defense ministry head, Irakli Garibashvili (who recently became the country’s prime minister). On September 8, 2020, then–defense minister Garibashvili visited TAM and informed the company’s management that he wanted to include all projects associated with the modernization of military aviation within the state program for the rearmament of the Georgian armed forces (Mod.gov.ge, September 8, 2020). TAM had not enjoyed this level of support from the government in a long time, although the unique Georgian plant had been somewhat successful in entering international aeronautics markets since post-Soviet independence. Beginning in 1998, TAM attracted Israeli investors (Elbit Systems, Ltd.) and was able to create, on the basis of the Su-25UB, a more powerful and modern combat aircraft—the single-seater Su-25KM “Scorpion.”
The efficiency of the Scorpion variant is three times higher than the “classic” (i.e., Soviet-era) Su-25, due mainly to improved aerodynamics as well as the use of new systems, “avionics” and “glass cockpit” radio-electronics technology. Elbit Systems installed on the airplane a Modular Multi-Role Computer (MMRC), multifunction color displays (MFCD), Hands-On-Throttle-And-Stick (HOTAS) technology, and a new GPS-based navigation system. The jet’s flight altitude is 7,000 meters, with a top speed of nearly 1,000 kilometers per hour and the ability to carry 4,500 kilograms of ordinance (Forum August 27, 2013; Military-today.com, accessed March 29, 2021). TAM and Elbit built only one Su-25KM Scorpion—a prototype. However, in 2005, then-president Mikheil Saakashvili ordered the development of several units of the Su-25KM Mimino as a variant specially created for the Georgian Air Force. It differed little from the Scorpion.
Irakli Aladashvili, the editor-in-chief of the military-analytical magazine Arsenali, said in a March 13 interview with this author that there are only two aircraft in the world that can achieve such superior ground-attack/CAS capabilities: the Su-25 and the United States’ A-10 Thunderbolt II (“Warthog”). “Georgia has sold more than 20 of these aircraft [Su-25UB] to Azerbaijan. We used these aircraft during the war in Abkhazia [1992–1993] and [in response to] the Russian aggression in 2008,” Aladashvili noted. He farther recalled that, in 1999, he accompanied the Georgian delegation to the Paris Air Show at Le Bourget where the presentation of the first Georgian-made Su-25KM Scorpion (prototype) took place. He underlined that the Su-25KM Mimino is nearly identical to the originally built Scorpion: Saakashvili simply wanted the name to sound more Georgian. “Mimino” means “falcon” in the Georgian language.
Aladashvili stressed that the Su-25KM Mimino is crucial to the country’s defense against further Russian aggression. “Occupying Russian troops are in South Ossetia and Abkhazia. In the event of a new assault, the [Georgian] armed forces need weapons that can retaliate against the aggressor not only with artillery but also with aviation,” the military expert said (Author’s interview, March 13).
In the near future, the Georgian authorities will have to present the results of the Su-25UB and Su-25KM overhaul and modernization to the parliament (Kvirispalitra, March 6). But Prime Minister Garibashvili’s government has even more ambitious plans—to develop and build brand new Su-25s that do not utilize any Russian parts or components, with the wings and fuselage built in Georgia. This plane would be called the Ge-31 Bora and be available for the Georgian Defense Forces and for export (Bm.ge October 8, 2018 and Wirtualna Polska, March 8).
Realizing both projects—the upgrading of its existing Su-25KMs as well as producing brand new Ge-31s—will only be possible if Georgia is able to attract significant investment from interested foreign partners. First of all, this means Israel: the country that achieved remarkable results in cooperating with Georgia’s domestic defense manufacturers to create the original Su-25 Scorpion (For.ge, June 23, 2014; EurasiaNet, August 20, 2015). But additionally, it may mean closer cooperation with defense-industry giant and fellow Su-25 operator Ukraine: a strategic partner with which bilateral relations have been strained over the past several years (see EDM, March 10, 2021). As such, the ambition to manufacture tens or hundreds of new ground-attack jets in Georgia hinges on politics, not only technology and finance.