How Russia and Georgia’s ‘little war’ started a drone arms race


TBILISI, Georgia — On the night of August 7, 2008, what military experts and historians say is the world’s first two-sided drone war began.

Georgia, convinced Russia was about to annex its separatist region of South Ossetia, made the first move by bombarding and then invading the separatist capital, Tskhinvali.

What followed was a destructive five-day war that was to a great extent provoked and fought by drones, waking Russia up to the strategic importance of unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) technology.

The Georgian government lost control over South Ossetia and Abkhazia in the country’s chaotic first years of independence after the Soviet Union fell in 1991.

Four months before the war, as peace talks stalled between Georgia and the de facto governments of its breakaway territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia the Georgian government began conducting reconnaissance flights over the conflict regions using medium-sized Hermes-450 drones it had purchased from Israel.

Moscow and Georgia’s capital of Tbilisi have frequently clashed over Georgia’s aspirations to join NATO as well as Russia’s increasing support to Georgian separatists, but the conflict intensified as the drones started to go down.

Three to seven Georgian drones were shot down over Abkhazia in April and May 2008. Each side offered conflicting information on the number of incidents and aircraft involved.

Georgia accused Russia, which maintained a peacekeeping contingent in each of the territories, of committing a “military aggression” on sovereign Georgian territory by shooting down the drones. On one occasion, Georgia produced video transmissions from one of its downed drones, showing a fighter jet shooting it with a missile. A subsequent UN report found that video proved Russia had shot down the drone using either a MiG-29 or Su-27 fighter.

These drone incidents highlighted a grey area of international laws and treaties pertaining to disputed territories and the use of unarmed, unmanned aircraft.

The 1994 Moscow Agreement was signed by the parties of the 1993-1994 Georgian-Abkhaz conflict and dictated that heavy weapons and military aircraft would not be allowed in or around the conflict zone. Both the UN and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which had observers deployed in Abkhazia, found that Russia violated the Moscow Agreement by sending the fighter to shoot down the Georgian drone.

However, the UN found that Georgia also violated the ceasefire because “a reconnaissance mission by a military aircraft, whether manned or unmanned, constituted ‘military action.’”

US Deputy Representative to the United Nations Alejandro Wolff protested the decision at the Security Council saying the Moscow Agreement “at best is unclear on this issue” and highlighted that the shootdown was a “very dangerous development, highly provocative” and a “violation of Georgia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.”

On the ground, the UN argued, the drone flights were “bound to be interpreted by the Abkhaz side as a precursor to a military operation,” but in his book “A Little War That Shook the World,” which chronicles the conflict and its causes, Ronald Asmus asserted that by shooting down the drone over internationally recognized Georgian territory, Russia committed the first “military aggression” of the war. In the end, the incident reinforced the notion on each side that the other was preparing to attack.

In the three months following the UN’s ruling, border skirmishes continued and escalated leading to Georgia’s offensive against Tskhinvali and a massive Russian counterattack that killed hundreds and caused over $1 billion in damage to Georgia.

After the war, Russian officials and military analysts said much of the blame for the military’s performance was due to the poor quality of its drone fleet.

To begin with, Russia’s drones were late to the battlefield as Russian Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov initially forgot to sign an order authorizing their use. Unable to gain real-time intelligence on the ground, the Russian top brass sent fighter jets and long-range bombers on reconnaissance and close air support missions before Georgia’s air defenses were neutralized, leaving them vulnerable to being shot down.

Russia defense expert Roger McDermott wrote that as “calamitous” as Russia’s losses due to poor intelligence were, they could have been much greater if Georgia used its air-defense platforms more efficiently.

By contrast, the Georgian military was viewed as effective in its initial maneuvers, backed by intelligence provided by its Hermes-450s and other smaller Israeli-made drone models. The Hermes-450 is similar in size and capabilities to the US military’s Predator, which has been heavily used for missions across the Middle East.

Russian officials later disclosed that the only drones it operated during the war were outdated domestic models developed in the late 1970s-early 1980s and several were lost. Furthermore, even the most advanced Russian-designed drone in the air at the time, “demonstrated many problems, among them a distinct acoustic signature audible from a long distance, which, coupled with its low [flight] ceiling, yielded high vulnerability to ground fire,” said Vladimir Popovkin, head of the Defense Ministry’s procurement wing.

However, if Russia was drone-poor and Georgia drone-rich before the conflict, everything changed when Israel switched sides.

Less than a year after the war, Russia announced it had bought 12 drones of varying sophistication for $53 million from state defense contractor Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI), and in October 2010, the two sides agreed to a $400 million joint venture agreement to produce dozens more. Jamestown Foundation Russia expert Pavel Felgenhauer called the deal “the biggest defense technology transfer deal between Russia and a Western nation since 1945.”

Russia is expected to continue to expand its drone arsenal, although its attempts at producing quality drones domestically have been largely fruitless and hardliners in Moscow have strongly resisted the military’s limited foreign purchases. Nonetheless, Russian President Vladimir Putin specifically underlined the development of Russia’s drone capabilities as a priority in a campaign essay ahead of his election in March and has said that Russia intends to spend $13 billion on drones by 2020 as a part of its military modernization.

Meanwhile, the fate of the drone deals between Georgia and Israel played a major factor in the quick deterioration of what Caucasus expert Michael Cecire described as a “love affair” turned “messy divorce.” Pre-2008, Israel enjoyed arguably its strongest ties in the region with the pro-Western government of Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili. Israel sold Georgia 40 drones, anti-aircraft equipment, and trained Georgian infantry through private defense firms.

In the run-up to the war, however, Russia put heavy pressure on Israel to cancel its arms deals with Georgia, and publicly implied it would consider selling advanced equipment to Israel’s enemies if it did not give in. Israel acquiesced two days before the start of the conflict, a move that Georgian Minister for Reintegration Temur Yakobashvili, now ambassador to the US, slammed as “a disgrace.”

“Israel did it at the Russians’ behest. It aided the terrorists, the Russians. It’s a disgrace. I don’t know what it received in return, I only see that Hezbollah continues to get Russian arms, and plenty of [them],” Yakobashvili told Haaretz at the time.

In April 2011, Israeli private defense contractor Elbit Systems, which supplied Georgia’s Hermes-450s and other drones, sued the country for $100 million for allegedly failing to pay for equipment. The two sides later settled the dispute with Georgia paying Elbit $35 million and returning “certain equipment and subsystems.”

Furthermore, in emails from private intelligence firm Stratfor leaked by WikiLeaks earlier this year, a Mexican source alleged that the Georgian government believed that Israel had also provided Moscow with the “data link codes” for its Hermes-450 drones, allowing Russian forces to hack them and force them to crash. This came supposedly in return for intelligence on air defense systems Russia had sold Iran.

The source, which Stratfor described as close to Mexican defense contractor Hydra Technologies, said Georgian officials were “frantically” looking for drones to replace its Israeli fleet, which they believed had been “compromised.”

Several defense industry sources told GlobalPost that it was extremely unlikely Israel would agree to such an intel exchange and doubted the credibility of Stratfor overall. Furthermore, Nick Turse, author of the ebook “Terminator Planet: The First History of Drone Warfare, 2001-2050,” said that there are a number of things that could bring down drones in a conventional warfare scenario, and drones are not particularly difficult to hack even without data link codes.

“Even Iraqi insurgents were able to hack drone feeds. So, we’re not talking about sophisticated military technology here,” he said. “In a traditional air war, drones would be decimated by conventional piloted aircraft, and modern air defense systems would make minced meat out of Predator and Reaper [type drones].”

Nonetheless, while unveiling what he said were a new line of Georgian-designed-and-produced drones in April, President Saakashvili implied he believed Israel had given Russia the codes.

“When you procure from abroad, a seller may not give you a full technology or may share technology [bought] by you to your adversary,” Saakashvili said, as cited by news website “No one will share this [pointing to the Georgian-made drone] with others.”

A month earlier he was quoted as saying it was important Georgia was producing its own drones because “someone may cheat you or share data to others or refuse [to sell weapons] at a decisive moment.”

Contrary to Saakashvili’s claims, however, Georgia is still not fully self-sufficient in its drone technology. Shortly after the president presented the drones, military bloggers noted that the supposedly Georgian-designed drones bore a strong resemblance to the Swan, a small drone produced by private Estonian defense contractor ELI.

Estonian defense attaché to Georgia Riho Uhtegi confirmed to GlobalPost that the drones were designed by ELI and licensed to Georgia for production. Since the war, Georgia has complained of being under an unofficial arms embargo, even from its Western partners and has publicly demanded weapons systems to replace equipment it lost during the war — specifically drones, air defense and anti-tank weapons.

The Estonian drone contract was the biggest arms deal Georgia has made, albeit secretly, since the conflict and Uhtegi said it was necessary for Estonia to gain approval from other NATO member countries before making the sale.

Still, drone industry experts also emphasized that the Estonian Swans are a big step down from the medium-sized Israeli Hermes-450. The Swan has limited range and altitude and must be launched by a mobile catapult while only being able to land via parachute.

“It’s sort of like comparing a Yugo to a Honda. They’re both cars, they both carry people, but they’re not in the same class,” one expert said.

Nonetheless, Irakli Aladashvili, editor-in-chief of the Georgian military journal Arsenali, said that drones continue to be essential for Georgia because they offer the cheapest way for a small country to scout enemy territory.

“Drones are the best intelligence devices after satellite surveillance. Obviously, the small countries of the South Caucasus can’t afford to put satellites into space, so [drones] are important,” he said.

The first drone war showed that drones can have a major impact on combat, but Turse said they are not necessarily a game-changer on the battlefield.

“For the last 100 years or so, there’ve been these wonder weapons that come around that are supposed to revolutionize warfare and give one nation a tremendous advantage — from tanks to machine guns. But whenever wonder weapons appear, countermeasures develop. War always seems to find a way,” he said.

However, even if drones do not prove to be crucial in winning conventional wars, Turse says they are likely to help start some new conflicts as international law has been slow to adapt to the new realities and the US has “written the rulebook” on their usage. Those “rules,” he said, include the mentality that violating another country’s territory with a robot isn’t a violation at all.

“I think this is embedded in the thinking on this. The US has been violating the sovereignty and airspace of countries for decades now with airplanes and the fact that there are no pilots in these things, the leadership feels like that gives them license to do it, even though there is no fundamental difference between violating it with a piloted plane or a robot plane,” he said.

The legality of such actions is even less clear amid territorial disputes, and, the de facto government of South Ossetia announced in September that it was working on measures to shoot down the Georgian drones it frequently spots in what it considers to be its sovereign territory, leading to fears that an escalation similar to 2008 could repeat itself.