Tuesday, September 2, 2008

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.

But the old T-72s, upgraded with explosive-reactive armor, were there, too.

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.

By 1941, the British Hawker Hurricane already was obsolete as a front-line combat fighter - its intended original role - against the German Luftwaffe. The advent of the Focke-Wulf Fw-190 fighter and later marks of Messerschmitt Me-109s saw to that.

Yet the Hurricane continued to perform valuable, far-flung service in a variety of roles until the surrender of Japan in August 1945, most notably as a tank buster providing tactical air support for the British army in its North African desert and Burma campaigns.

The old Soviet T-55 Main Battle Tank from the 1950s was notorious for its vulnerability to bursting into flame from a direct hit. But to this day, scores if not hundreds of them still do service as shows of military muscle for military dictatorships across sub-Saharan Africa and parts of Southeast Asia.

In the same way, the Russian army has been able to greatly extend the operational life of its old T-72s. Tank for tank, on paper they are no match for the more modern T-90s or U.S. Abrams MBTs.

But when they are launched in operations such as the Russian drive into Georgia, they can still exert more than enough overwhelming force to fulfill the dictums of von Clausewitz.

This has been overlooked and forgotten by Western pundits since the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union. The miserable performance of the Russian army in the first Chechen war of 1994-96 confirmed that the army had indeed become almost useless, weak, demoralized and disorganized during the chaotic early years in power of President Boris Yeltsin.

But that was then, and this is now. The Russian army today still could prove no match for the U.S. Army and its NATO allies at the peak of their power, but it doesn’t have to.

The U.S. Army and Marines have been exhausted by their ongoing commitment in Iraq fighting a relatively small but ongoing low-intensity counterinsurgency war against Sunni Muslim insurgents over the past 5 1/2 years.

And the nations of the European Union in general have allowed their conventional forces to run down to an extreme degree since the collapse of communism.

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