By Molly Corso
Georgia is set to test its own domestically designed and built artillery system on March 3. In scheduling the event the day before Russia’s presidential election, officials in Tbilisi appeared to be firing a figurative shot at their nemesis – the Kremlin’s paramount leader Vladimir Putin.
The planned test is part of a Georgian push to develop the country’s defense manufacturing capabilities. In late February, Georgia unveiled a 14-ton infantry combat vehicle, called Lazika. After taking a ride in one of the armored vehicles, President Mikheil Saakashvili praised it as a “new level of development” that could shift Georgia from buyer to seller in international arms markets.
Georgia has pressed to improve its combat capabilities since its disastrous war with Russia in 2008. Many analysts say the development of Tbilisi’s defense industries won’t do much to make Georgia more secure in a potential conflict against a military power like Russia. They see it mostly as an exercise in national pride. “[T]his government is trying to improve national morale [by saying], ‘Look, we are producing this,’” said Alexander Rondeli, president of the Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies. “We calculated that we could create [a] certain capacity and it is great that we produce something.”
One veteran analyst with close ties to senior Georgian government officials maintains that Georgia’s domestic military production is a way to sidestep a “kind of blockade” on arms sales to Tbilisi, one that has been informally in place since 2008. Officials in Washington and Tbilisi deny that a formal arms embargo exists.
For some, developing domestic arms manufacturing is a necessary response to a national security threat that continues to emanate from Russia. The “Russians are concentrating their best weaponry in the North Caucasus, in Abkhazia, in South Ossetia. Night vision helicopters, the most modern tanks,” noted Rondeli. “How is Georgia supposed to feel?”
These days, drones and armored vehicles top the government’s known military projects, although President Saakashvili has alluded to other equipment, including automatic rifles. No public information exists for projected costs or production plans. It’s likewise not known how much state funds are being poured into defense manufacturing projects.
Some analysts have speculated that US technical assistance with design and engineering facilitated Georgia’s decision to start producing rather than buying such equipment. The February 22 visit of US Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Celeste Wallander to Tbilisi added fuel to such speculation. The US embassy in Tbilisi did not respond in time for publication to requests for comment about American defense cooperation with Georgia.
One military analyst who formerly served as a British defense attaché in the South Caucasus argues that Lazika is “not state of the art” and “well within the capabilities of a small country like Georgia.”
The Lazika, manufactured by Delta, the Georgian Ministry of Defense’s research center, boasts armor designed to stop 14.5-mm armor-piercing rounds, and is equipped with a 23-mm-caliber cannon and 7.62-mm-caliber machine gun. Last May, the government unveiled two other armored carriers, the Didgori 1 and Didgori 2, during the Independence Day military parade.
The vehicle gives the Georgian army greater mobility — a problem encountered during its 2008 war. But does not represent “a military capabilities shift.” said Christopher Langton, director of the London-based Independent Conflict Research & Analysis think-tank. “Lazika is symbolically influential in domestic terms and also an upgrade in the capabilities for Georgian infantry,” Langton said. In case of war, however, it is “not really going to hold the horns from the north at bay for very long.”
An examination of publically available Georgian Defense Ministry spending data on research and development indicates that the idea to increase Georgia’s own military production capabilities has existed for some time. While Georgia’s overall defense budget shrank between 2010 and 2011 (from 728 million lari, or $443 million, in 2010 to 711 million lari, or $432 million, in 2011), the money earmarked for research and development more than quadrupled during the same period — from 4.02 million lari (about $2.42 million) in 2010 to 18.6 million lari ($11.18 million) in 2011, according to state budget documents. R&D figures for 2012 are not available; the 2012 defense budget stands at 675 million lari, or $410 million.
A project likely to fuel further speculation about Pentagon participation in Georgia’s armament plans is a plan for Georgian-manufactured spy planes, or drones. Parliamentary Defense Committee Chairperson Givi Targamadze first mentioned the drone project, which follows on the heels of a ditched contract with Israeli drone manufacturer Elbit, in an interview with Pirveli news agency earlier this month.
Targamadze was not available for comment, but Tbilisi Airplane Manufacturing, a Soviet-era factory that was renationalized in 2010, is thought to be the Georgian drones’ production facility.
Under private ownership, the factory was producing lightweight aircraft using materials similar to those needed for drones, said Irakli Aladashvili, editor-in-chief of the military journal Arsenali. The plant, bombed by Russia during the 2008 war, also once manufactured Soviet fighter jets like the Sukhoi SU-25. “[In] that factory, they have built thousands of planes. …So they would have no problems building something like a drone,” Aladashvili said. The Georgian Ministry of Defense, which now owns the factory, did not respond to emailed questions about the drones, or other equipment under production.
Molly Corso is a freelance journalist who also works as editor of Investor.ge, a monthly publication by the American Chamber of Commerce in Georgia.