Established in 2009, the United States-Georgia Charter on Strategic Partnership is based on four core pillars: Defense and Security Cooperation; Economic, Trade and Energy Cooperation; Strengthening Democracy; and Increasing People-to-People and Cultural Exchanges. As part of these two countries’ defense and security cooperation, the US provides financial support to the Georgian military, support for Georgia’s territorial defense and sovereignty, and, ultimately, for Georgia’s procurement of US defensive weapons. This triple combination ensures Georgia’s military strength and demonstrates America’s unwavering support for Georgia’s independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity. However, a lack of medium- to long-term US political and military commitment to Georgia’s security could put Georgia in jeopardy.
US Financial Support to Georgia
American military assistance to Georgia, designated as foreign military funding (FMF) and intended for military equipment, fell from $30 million in 2016 to just $20 million with funding in 2017 aimed at “promoting the development of Georgian forces capable of enhancing security, countering Russian aggression and contributing to coalition operations.” This also includes support for the modernization of Georgia’s rotorcraft air transport capabilities, Georgian military institutions and defense reform. A spending law passed by the Senate Administrative Committee in September 2017 increased Georgia’s FMF from $20 million to $35 million in 2018. Congress appropriated $35 million in FMF and $2 million in International Military Education and Training (IMET) funds. Defence assistance also includes a three-year, $35 million training initiative, in the form of the Georgia Defence Readiness Programme (GDRP) in 2019.
In 2020, the State Department allocated $40 million in FMF assistance and $2.2 million in IMET funds, with additional funding received through the Department of Defense’s global train-and-equip authority. For the year 2021, President Donald Trump requested $20 million in FMF assistance and $2.2 million in IMET assistance while the House Appropriations Committee recommended $35 million in FMF assistance and $2.2 million in IMET assistance for Georgia.
A Turn in the US Military Approach
In recent years, the US military approach to Georgia has shifted from training for international missions to the territorial defense of Georgia. The latest US-Georgia Memorandum on Deepening the Defence and Security Partnership, signed in Tbilisi on Jul. 6, 2016 by US Secretary of State John Kerry and Georgian Prime Minister Georgi Kvirikashvili, provided for this shift. In addition, the memorandum outlines assistance in defense procurement for Georgia in order to enhance the country’s defense capabilities and the combat level of its armed forces so that they can cooperate with NATO forces.
Although the US does conduct some combined arms training of Georgian troops, it does so at the US-operated Joint Multinational Readiness Centre (JMRC) at the Hohenfels Training Area, Germany. The establishment of a US-financed JMRC in Georgia, similar to the centre of the same name at the US site in Germany, would be a step in the right direction.
Under the GDRP launched at the JMRC, between 40 and 50 American army officers are stationed at the Vaziani base to train Georgian troops. It has a duration of three years and trains nine NATO standard rifle battalions. This complements Georgia’s operational programme, under which some 80 Marines are stationed in Georgia to train Georgian troops before they are sent to NATO’s Resolute Support Mission (RSM) mission in Afghanistan.
In addition to training, the US holds two major military exercises annually at the Vaziani military base: “Agile Spirit” and “Noble Partner.” Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the United States last year approved the supply of defensive weapons to Georgia.
Georgian Procurement of US Defensive Weapons
The US Defence Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA), announced on Nov. 20 2017 that “the State Department has approved a possible Foreign Military Sale of JAVELIN missiles and command launchers to Georgia for an estimated cost of $75 million.” The sale was approved in January 2018.
The DSCA specified that arms sales would include 410 JAVELIN missiles and 72 JAVELIN Command Launch Units as well as logistics and programme support elements. According to the DSCA, the proposed sale “would contribute to the foreign policy and national security of the United States by enhancing the security of Georgia. The JAVELIN launch will improve Georgia’s capability to meet its national defence needs.” The DSCA also noted that the sale “would not alter the military balance in the region” and that “there would be no negative impact on US defence as a result of this planned sale.” Important in the DSCA Declaration is that it underlines Georgia’s importance in the US foreign and security policy and emphasizes American understanding that such a limited sale of defense systems to Georgia would not be a turning point. At the same time, the US signalled to Russia that despite its objections, the US was willing to supply defensive weapons to Georgia. On Feb. 28 2020, the US Department of Defense (DoD), stated that “Georgia, along with other US partners will receive a new batch of JAVELIN missiles after 25 June.”
Furthermore, in 2017, the US began replacing Soviet AK rifles in the Georgian Army with American A240 machine guns. As a result, it can be argued that the Trump Administration revitalized military relations between Georgia and the US which had been downgraded by the Obama administration.
In a final icing on top of the Georgian cake, the House of Representatives adopted the Georgia Support Act on 23 October 2019. The Georgia Support Act bolsters Georgia’s territorial integrity by authorising sanctions against those responsible for, or complicit, in human rights violations in Georgia’s occupied regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. The most important item on the Act agenda is security assistance to Georgia.
The report required under paragraph (1) shall include the following: (A) A detailed review of all United States security assistance to Georgia from the fiscal year 2008 to the date of the submission of such a report. (B) An assessment of threats to Georgian independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity. (C) An assessment of Georgia’s capabilities to defend itself, including a five-year strategy to enhance Georgia’s deterrence, resilience and self-defence capabilities.
The last paragraph is the most important because the US is the major arms provider to Georgia, with the exception of France. Despite Congress adopting the Georgia Support Act, it is still pending Senate and presidential approvals, something that is likely making Georgians very nervous.
Although US financial and military support to Georgia is impressive, President-Elect Joe Biden’s Administration should strengthen America’s medium- to long-term political and military commitment to Georgia, something that has thus far been missing. If the US wishes to safeguard Georgia’s independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity, it should first station two battalions in Georgia on a rotational base as a deterrence against a potential Russian invasion. The four battalions in their entirety would be permanently based in Romania, the only NATO member state that considers Russia to be an aggressive country around the Black Sea region. At the same time, the US should offer Georgia the status of a Major Non-NATO Ally (MNNA). In September 2015, Michael Cecire of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, proposed that the US grant Georgia the status of an MNNA. Cecire argued “It would come at virtually zero cost since the step would be most symbolic and compel no treaty obligations, but it could help galvanise a wary Georgian public” that realised back then NATO is drugging its feet from officially offering membership. Unfortunately for Georgia, NATO membership today remains as elusive as it was in 2015. What Cecire did not say is that the MNNA status permits the basing of permanent US ground troops within a non-NATO ally country. Others suggest basing battalions on a rotational base.
In November 2018, Georgian Minister of Defence Levan Izoria welcomed General Stephen Lyons, Commander of the United States Transportation Command (USTRANSCOM). The talks focused on expanding the capabilities of the Vaziani military airfield and the establishment of the logistic centre. No further information was published on the issue. Nevertheless, it is important to remember that after modernising the runaway, American HERCULES transport planes would be able to touch down at Vaziani. However, this project is predicated on the physical presence of the US rotational battalions in Georgia. Their presence will signal to Russia that any military confrontation between Russia and Georgia will be supported by the US troops on the ground. This was an uncomfortable idea for the Trump Administration, the House of Representatives, and the Senate. But without US military presence in Georgia, any idea related to the expansion of the Vaziani military airfield, the establishment of the logistic centre, or any other US military initiative in Georgia remains futile. It should be emphasized that Russia disregards soft power or instruments of diplomacy and only understands hard power.
A Biden Administration should consider the establishment of a manufacturing facility in Georgia for a licenced production of JAVELIN and assist in setting a maintenance and repair facility for the US A240 machine guns.
In addition, Georgia needs to establish a robust naval force since the current Coastal Guard is insufficient to defend the country’s interests in the Black Sea. At the moment, it appears that the US is not ready to assist in this endeavour. However, in the next two to three years, a harbour infrastructure for the naval force needs to be established with sailors trained in Georgia in the same way the Georgian Army is trained by US instructors. And finally, patrol boats with various weapons, sensors and communications gear should be given to Georgia.
Finally, a decision made by the incoming government to station US military troops in Georgia on a rotational basis would guarantee Georgia’s security.
Eugene Kogan is a defense and security expert based in Tbilisi, Georgia.The views expressed here are his own.
Photo by VANO SHLAMOV/AFP via Getty Images