Connect to share and comment

The global market for drones is booming. But what does the coming arms race mean for US national security interests — and the future of warfare? GlobalPost correspondents report from critical locations around the world, from Israel to Iran to Yemen to Brazil — where unmanned aerial vehicles are radically transforming combat and surveillance.

Russia early drone 2004
A file picture taken in July 2004 shows technicians examining pilotless photoreconnaissance in a yard of Moscow's research center. (AFP/Getty Images)

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

The legacy of the world's first drone war is shaped in part by US precedent.

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.

“The small countries of the South Caucasus can’t afford to put satellites into space, so [drones] are important.”
~Irakli Aladashvili, editor-in-chief of Arsenali

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