Shalva Dzebisashvili

The 19th century German military strategist, Carl von Clausewitz, opened the eyes of many of his contemporaries as he examined the phenomenon of war and concluded that war, in fact, was a struggle between a competing wills of two or more parties to make opposing party obey and even more, it was not only the duty of military but a close  connection of three intertwined elements – the army, the people and the government.

Despite the fact that this conclusion survived through the centuries and saw its accuracy confirmed numerous times, in the contemporary Georgian reality and especially in the political circles it is either absolutely unknown or even worse, ignored. In both cases, the results of disregard and ignorance let to the catastrophic impact on the political capacity to analyze security and military needs of Georgia and had no less destructive effects on the formulation of a number of political decisions that essentially do damage the defensibility of our country.

The main message of Clausewitz’s conclusion, put simply, meant the need of active involvement of people in the conduct of war with enduring unity and strong linkages to government and army. Additionally it underlined the importance of understanding of the objectives of war as the key factor of success. According to Clausewitz’s opinion, this unity was the one that ensured the ultimate victory in war, otherwise causing an inevitable defeat. Despite the growing relevance of the economic factor (industrial-material resources) to the nations’ capacity of waging war, confirmed  during the First and Second World Wars; the mentioned thee elements, especially the decisive role  of population, to fight battles and wage war in achieving defence (war) objectives, remained unshaken.

What exactly is the role of population in the “successful” model of war? Apart from the fact, that while deciding to enter into war the government of a country must have already secured the popular support, it is people who must be actively engaged in conducting battles and providing other support activities. As an extreme example of this, Clausewitz draws on Spain confronting Napoleon’s army, when the popular armed resistance and the consequent French atrocities coined a new term, Guerilla, which Clausewitz called the “people’s war”. Guerilla became an instrument for the weak to defeat much more powerful opponents or force them to refuse the continuation of war ( examples of China, Vietnam and Afghanistan).

With regard to Georgia, it would be obvious from the very beginning that due to existing military threats and the regional/global challenges, the role of the people, as the decisive element, should have received incomparably, bigger attention, especially taken the country’s small size, limited economic-material base and the stability of the political system. Yet, the experience of the years past clearly indicates an opposite picture, more specifically, the absence of efforts or their wrong application.

The model of people’s war enables the weak countries to achieve a rapid growth in military potential by involving the people in the military activities in a wide and intensive manner that increases the deterrence factor several times. Hence, given the small size and the economic weaknesses of our country, compulsory military conscription and the large number of reserve units remains as the only mechanism to implement military objectives and missions.  

Despite the mentioned necessity, further strengthened by the fact that Georgia is not part of any military alliance and has, therefore, no security guarantees, already in 2003, the Government of Georgia headed towards forming a fully professional army. First in the 2007 the Defense Strategic Review document (SDR), then in the same document of 2013 and in the Defense Transformation document of the same year, under different Ministers (2009, 2016), the desire of moving the armed forces to a fully contractual (professional) basis was multiple times and clearly stated. Finally, in spring 2016, the Minister of Defense of Georgia, Tina Khidasheli, unilaterally terminated the practice of conscription and explained her step, among other reasons, with a large surpluses of candidates willing to enter professional military service.

Apart from the used argument, a number of additional arguments was also used, to try to to justify the abolition of conscription through political, economic and moral dimensions, yet did not go beyond political speculations, subjective views and opportunistic approaches. Seemingly the strongest among these arguments was the factor NATO standards and requirements, according to which the alliance required from Georgia to abolish conscription and build a fully professional army. In order to prove the absurdity of the said claim, it is enough to take a fleeting look at the history and structure of the armed forces of NATO member states. Furthermore, the recommendations of the alliance were always concentrated on the appropriate use of limited resources in Georgia, including the financial ones, which in the case of the professional army would inevitably reduce its number, making it even more difficult to address the task of defending the country. Naturally, the alliance was very much interested in Georgia’s ability to implement its obligations (e.g. mission in Afghanistan); however, on the other hand, the primacy of maintaining the defense capacities of the country in the face of Russia’s aggressive intentions was also clear for the alliance. Hence, Georgia was clearly not limited in its choice to make right decision, and the use of “NATO standards argument” to abolish conscription had rather a speculative foundation.

One more argument refers to the connections between the effectiveness and the economic aspect of the armed forces, or that of the limited funding (defense budget). The reference to cost-benefit analysis was intended to provide a practical explanation of the problem; yet again, in the mentioned period, this argument was characterized by an even higher degree of speculation, which is still in force. Usually, the opponents of universal conscription appeal to the low combat-readiness of the units consisting of conscripts and for some reason, they bring as an example a small segment of the Georgian armed forces (about 10%) where, according to the past practices, the conscripts received bad training and were mainly assigned non-combat missions, such as guarding the facilities, food supply etc.  To say nothing about the said functions that in fact are standard tasks for any unit (incl. combat ones), it is absolutely incomprehensible why the tradition of bad practices in a small segment of the army has being used to conclude about the low effectiveness of conscription as a general tool of manning in armed forces, with its respective certification as low combat ready.     The negative assessments go as far as using the terms “secondary” or “slave” armies, that in reality has nothing to do with the effectiveness of the military units comprised of conscripts. The claim, that the combat-readiness of such units is objectively low is nothing else than an outright lie.

Conscription, much like the contract based military service is just a tool for manning the army, whilst the generation of a combat-ready unit is a result of a standard combat training process and preparation, which both the conscripts as well as those selected for professional military service routinely undergo. After a certain period of individual and unit level training, both type of units manned by conscripts and professionals reach the same level of combat readiness and can perform missions with the same success. The world history offers numerous examples when the army of conscripts outmatched and outperformed professional armies and successfully handled the assigned combat missions, in some cases even defeated professional armies.

It is plausible to discuss the differences of the conscripts and professional military servicemen in moral-psychological dimension. According to the claim of the proponents of a fully professional army, the motivation of a person entering the military service voluntarily is much higher than that of a person drafted against his own will, which, according to this logic, influences their performance as well. At the same time, however, they completely and often purposefully ignore the fact that the main motivation for the professional military service, especially in socially and economically underdeveloped states, is in fact the material-financial gain, which may totally contradict the moral premise of selfless service for one’s country, as well as the requirement of a high moral-psychological firmness in combat. Historical evidence, as well as more recent cases give countless examples of a professional (contracted) army mainly occupied with saving their own lives and unable to withstand the clash with a popular (conscript) army barely equipped, yet with high combat spirit.

Hence, it seems that the problem articulated is not the conscription mechanism but rather the moral-psychological motivation of the public, or, in other words, patriotism and morale. Once there is a strong evidence of morale assed as woeful, no mechanism personnel recruiting will ensure the required level of combat readiness. In any case, given the limited economic and financial resources, the professional army sucks up infinitely more resources than the conscript based, and exactly because of the mentioned lack of resources, professional system may exhibit grave deficiencies such as being largely limited to distributing salaries and becoming a social-welfare mechanism for a certain group of population. As a result, i.e. the lack of funding available for combat training and military hardware acquisition, armed forces degrade to a very low combat readiness and in extreme cases to a parade troops, despite their professional nature.

Similar danger faced the Georgian army when the share of professional segment gradually increased whilst the defense budget stagnated and even sharply reduced with no serious growth prospective in future. The defense objectives the country is confronted with dictate to the political leadership the permanent need of high combat readiness of the armed forces. Due to significant financial limitations (2008 – GEL 1.5 million, 2013 – GEL 660 million, 2016 – GEL 670 million) during the last decade the implementation of the defense missions without freeing up or re-distributing the available resources in the defense budget towards combat training and military acquisitions, became the wishful thinking. Hence, if the defense budget remains untouched, the only effective step to much the defense missions’ requirements quantitatively and qualitatively would be to reduce dramatically the size of professional army and to man the bulk of the armed forces with conscripts.

Recognizing the principle of total defense as the cornerstone of national defence (since 2011) makes the question of the proper (increased) size of armed forces even more urgent. Taking into account the basic characteristic of the total defense principle, which is the necessity for enduring resistance, further growth of the share of conscripts and the reduction of the professional component of the army would be a logical step. However, the decision made by the Minister of Defense of Georgia, Tina Khidasheli, to abandon conscription mechanism unilaterally, appears without any rationale. The argument used by the minister that the number recruits willing to follow professional career surpassed the personnel need of the GAF, proved very soon as false by the decision of the new Minister of Defense, Levan Izoria, who restored conscription and explained this move with the gaps and practical requirements in staffing military units.

As it seems, the decision of Ms. Khidasheli served more the goals of the subjective political agenda, rather than of objective calculations and requirements. It is a positive sign that the eradication of the existing bad practices in units manned with conscripts and the radical increase in combat training for conscript based units (only in GAF) is closely associated with the introduction of the total defense principle. However; the Ministry of Defense has not yet made a fundamental decision to increase the number of conscripts, which would be the logical sequence, given the total defense principle and the existing financial-resources limitations. Additionally, another dimension of so called bad tradition, which refers to the large number of conscripts serving, for some reason, in other (non-military) structures (Ministry of Internal Affairs, State Security Service, Ministry of Corrections and so on) remains unchanged, with the consequence that individuals having served in these structures are formally considered to have completed the compulsory military service, despite non-military skills acquired and their minimal value in real combat. It is unthinkable for a country with such security environment as Georgia to have the luxury to not use conscripts purposefully and maintain such harmful system, that, to put it mildly, cannot be found anywhere else in the world.

Statements of every Minister about turning the army into a fully professional body have not been followed by a serious discussion in the Parliament or the Cabinet, and were usually met with quiet consent. The mistakes from the period of Irakli Okruashvili to Tina Khidasheli reveal a grave deficit in knowledge and understanding that feature Georgian political decision-makers  in security and military affairs. The constant adaptation of the General Staff with the decisions made at the Minister’s level, on the other hand, clearly indicates the level of political influence over the military and its limited freedom of action. The gradual changes started under Minister Izoria are welcome. However, it obviously needs more scale and intensity to make decisive impact on political decision-making.  The faster these gaps of knowledge are filled the stronger the bridges between Clausewitz’s elements of war will become in Georgia and the bigger the involvement of the population in the defense of country, which, in our case, seems to be the strongest guarantee of defense.


P.S. Countries neighboring , be it NATO member or neutral states, have all recognized and restored military conscription, especially the ones who have turned the principle of total defense into the basis of their national defence (Sweden, Finland).