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Weekend Warriors

By Tim Ogden
Tuesday, July 28
By the end of the Cold War, most European nations (with the notable exception of France) had abolished conscription. In the minds of politicians, the collapse of the Soviet Union having significantly reduced the risk of Europe burning in a third disastrous world war. The United States maintained conscription in the 1960s and '70s as it waded deeper into the quagmire of the Vietnam War, but returned to an all-volunteer military after their withdrawal from Saigon.

Conscription is introduced in times of national emergency, when the standing army of a nation cannot possibly hope to last against numerically superior enemy forces without being bolstered by citizen soldiers drafted into military service. The professional soldiers of the British Expeditionary Force sent to aid France in 1914 acquitted themselves admirably despite being vastly outnumbered, even eventually stopping the German onslaught at The Battle of the Marne (over the course of early World War I campaigns, British riflemen fired their weapons with such speed and accuracy that their German opponents were convinced they were under machine gun fire), but being barely 100, 000 strong, they could not have hoped to continue to fight without the influx of millions of reinforcements hastily trained in Britain and the Empire.

Georgia's professional army of roughly 40, 000 men and women have displayed professionalism and competence equal to European and American soldiers (indeed, being described as 'not bad' by a British soldier is about as high an accolade as any foreign military can expect to get) in Iraq and Afghanistan for the better part of a decade; NATO's reluctance to admit Georgia into the alliance seems increasingly to be due to political policy and fear of Russia than anything to do with Georgian troops 'not meeting NATO standards'. It is only in the reserve system of the Army that Georgia continues to fall behind.

Britain's tradition of having a small but elite army that can confront numerically superior forces (and expect to win) is reflected in the organisation of its part-time soldiery. In Georgia's conscript system, soldiers are trained for one year in a two-days-on-one-day-off system over twelve months, to be called up in times of extreme need (such as the 2008 war against Russia) and expected to act as emergency infantry. Reserve soldiers in Britain are trained one weeknight per week and then one weekend every two weeks, followed by a number of two-week long courses in order to qualify as a trained soldier; after 'passing out' (graduating), this training is reduced to one weeknight per week, one weekend a month and two fourteen-day courses every year. This is the minimum requirement, and other courses and camps are available for volunteers.

Recruits are also not limited to joining the infantry. Reserve units exist for all sections of the Armed Forces, from the Royal Corps of Signals and the Royal Engineers (in which recruits can acquire skills useful in civilian employment) to elite formations such as the Royal Marines Commando, the Parachute Regiment, and even the Special Air Service (SAS), the world's first (and arguably the best) special operations unit around which all others (including those within the United States military) have been based. All training programmes for all sections of the military, from the Army Catering Corps to the SAS itself, are almost unaltered from those conducted by the Regular Army; indeed, it is often thought that Reservists attempting to meet the high physical and professional standards of Her Majesty's Armed Forces struggle more than their Regular counterparts, as they often need to balance a civilian career with their military service (a point of current controversy is the difficulty of Reserve SAS Selection; three SAS hopefuls died of exposure whilst attempting to qualify as special forces troopers in 2013). All Reserve soldiers are trained to fully integrate into Regular Army units, and have regularly been deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq alongside their full-time colleagues during the campaigns of the last twelve years.

The Georgian military reserve system suffers from a lack of organisation and, perhaps, motivation. The conscript, who regarded his inferior training as something to survive and endure, will never perform as well under fire as the volunteer reservist who enlisted fully expecting (and fully trained) to face combat. The British campaign to retake the Falkland Islands in 1982 demonstrated this. In warfare, typically the defender can expect to inflict more casualties on the attacker, enjoying the benefit of static positions and pre-prepared fighting positions, but the Argentine forces (many of whom were conscripts) were utterly defeated in the field by the elite formations of the Royal Marines Commando and the Parachute Regiment. The Argentine casualties exceeded British losses by almost two thirds.

During the war of 2008, men called up to fight reported arriving at army depots to find a scene of confusion. Empty rucksacks were issued, along with uniforms that did not fit. One man even described how a sergeant had refused to issue him with a rifle before transporting him and a squad of other conscripts to Gori, unarmed and unprepared, before taking them back to Tbilisi as the Russian forces advanced over the Ossetian administrative border.

It would be far more beneficial for Georgia to operate a professional reserve system, recruiting part-time soldiers for all corps. Men trained regularly, who are familiar with their comrades, NCOs and officers (and, more importantly, who actually view themselves as being soldiers) will naturally perform better than a group of conscripts who had never wanted to wear a uniform but had been unable to avoid their mandatory military service.

The current conscription programme is a drain on the budget of the Ministry of Defence, a waste of equipment and a poor use of time for the soldiers tasked with training men whose only aspiration in their military service is to end it. Much is made of a lack of modern American-made equipment, but ongoing conflicts in Ukraine, Syria and Afghanistan have shown that the Russian AK47 and AK74 rifle series (widely available in Georgia's arsenal) are far from outdated. In addition, a trained and motivated force of 30, 000 men armed with World War II-era Mosin-Nagant bolt-action rifles would fight with more tenacity than 100, 000 unmotivated conscripts with American-made M4s.

Abandoning conscription would naturally mean that Georgia would not be able to field as many men in times of emergency, but a smaller, well-prepared and highly-trained military machine would undoubtedly serve the nation rather better. Recruits would also benefit from a source of secondary income, as well as learning skills transferable to civilian careers, especially in the fields of signals (telecommunications) and military engineering (construction/demolition).