The Revival of the Georgian Armaments and Defense Industry
In the competitive arms and defense sector, Georgia, a country of four million located in the South Caucasus, is rarely mentioned. This may seem paradoxical as Tbilisi was known and recognized for the quality of its military industry during the Cold War, notably due to the production of the Sukhoi Su-25 aircrafts, which are still in use in many conflicts, including in Syria.
Despite the Georgian expertise in this respect, the Georgian arms industry still faces financial difficulties thirty years after the collapse of the USSR, as do almost all other sectors, but there have been profound changes since 2010, when the State Military Scientific-Technical Center (DELTA), a governmental entity, was established in response to a growing awareness of Russia’s return to the international arena combined with a desire for autonomy from expensive foreign suppliers.
From Soviet to NATO standards
In the aftermath of the break-up of the Soviet Union, the Georgian economy collapsed, and the promising markets for tea, wine and spirits, mineral water, and military equipment went down with it.
With the emergence of the new Russia, independent Georgia no longer has its main customer, Moscow, which would rather focus on Russian companies. Similarly, the USSR’s allies had little interest in renewing military contracts with Tbilisi and turned to other manufacturers instead. These geopolitical difficulties, combined with the two conflicts with Abkhazia and South Ossetia, led to a lack of budget allocated to the arms and defense industry by Tbilisi, which resulted in the near disappearance of the latter in less than a decade.
The 1990s were therefore a chaotic period for the Georgian armed forces. Despite a lack of resources to purchase new equipment, Georgia wished to emancipate itself from the Soviet past, moving closer to NATO and the Western world. As such, Georgian troops were forced to rely on Soviet material to ensure national security.
In this respect, the situation in the country remains contrasted to this day, as Tbilisi does not have the means to renew all its military equipment, which explains the abundance of Soviet equipment still in use (Su-25 aircrafts, T-72 tanks, BTR-80 armored vehicles, AK-74 rifles), while purchasing its new equipment from a wide variety of partners to get closer to new allies, which results in a mixture of standards on the battlefield. To give just a few examples, Georgia buys Israeli (Elbit Hermes 450, Aerostar) and Estonian (SWAN III) UAVs, American (Bell UH-1H Iroquois) and French (Eurocopter Super Puma) helicopters, German (Rheinmetall MAN, Unimog, Mercedes Bens Actros) and Turkish (Nurol Ejder and Otokar Cobra) vehicles.
Far from being an operational disadvantage, this transition of the Georgian armed forces from Soviet to NATO standards, which has lasted for more than three decades and has not yet been completed, attests to a parsimonious transition.
For all these reasons—lack of uniformity and insufficient budget—the Georgian government decided to organize the rebirth of its defense industry in 2010 with the DELTA. The desire of the Ministry of Defense at that time was clear: to avoid dependence on foreign supplies and thus limit the national deficit by purchasing military products “Made in Georgia”, while at the same time addressing new markets and exporting military products.
As a result, Georgia is currently offering military equipment with a high potential, such as the Didgori-2 transport vehicle, an affordable light armored vehicle adapted to the needs of urban war zones.
SMSTC Delta (DELTA) innovations and the revival of national industry
Although launched in 2010 and without significant resources (2,000 employees in 2021), DELTA has managed to establish itself on the international arms markets, notably due to the quality of its products and its competitive prices.
As mentioned on the official website, DELTA has more than 60 years of history and a solid experience acquired during the Soviet period, hence its rebirth in 2010 when six scientific research institutes and the aircraft manufacturing plant in Tbilisi (31 aviation plants) were placed under its control.
At the origins of its success, the governmental organization focused on military products that were in high demand and did not go beyond national competencies. Therefore, there are no products related to aviation or submarines, in order not to incur high costs. Instead, one finds a range of armored vehicles, personnel protection equipment, artillery systems, small arms and mortars, as well as some products for the civilian sector like fire trucks. All of this is relevant insofar as they meet a national need for upgrading the Georgian armed forces and can be exported, avoiding high production costs with no return on investment.
Didgori armored vehicles
DELTA’s success is largely based on the Didgori Meomari, a light armored vehicle with a crew of 5 for a maximum speed of 140km/hour, with EN1063 BR7+ armor and automatic transmission. The Didgori is assembled on and around the chassis of American Ford Super Duty F-550 vans, equipped with V8 Power Stroke Turbo Diesel engines and hydraulic power steering. The basic choice of product has proven to be very effective in testing and on different types of terrain.
To get into details, the acceleration from 0 to 100 km/h is achieved in 22 seconds and the cruising range at 60 km/h is 500 km. In addition, each unit has at least one 20-litre fuel can in reserve. The vehicle can operate in temperatures ranging from -32°C to +55°C, which meets the needs of both desert and wet environments.
Each standard version is equipped with FLIR thermal imaging and night vision systems mounted at the front and rear, and under the hull on each side. Information from the external cameras is displayed on three screens: one for the driver, one for the commander and one for the passengers. A special GPS navigation system is installed on the vehicle to provide additional information to the crew through short messages.
When it comes to the firepower, the standard main armament consists of an M134 mini-gun mount, open turret drive shafts and a rotation unit (external or airflow). The rate of fire can be adjusted from 300 to 6,000 rounds per minute. The total weight of the mount is 22.7 kg without the ammunition supply system. The main ammunition is 7.62×51mm NATO. The ammunition capacity can range from 1,500 (total weight 58 kg) to 4,500 (total weight 134 kg) rounds. As an option, the standard armament can be a 12.7×108mm DShK or NSV machine gun.
This performance and configuration are largely explained by the two conflicts in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, two territories where the temperature drops (in South Ossetia) in winter, with Abkhazia having a humid subtropical climate.
Consequently, this vehicle was tested on the Georgian national territory, ranging from the hot and humid environments of Batumi to the wintrier conditions of the east of the country. This versatility has led to several orders, notably at the national level, but also in Saudi Arabia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Indonesia.
The Didgori family
Another version, the Didgori Meomari with 120mm mortar, offers, as its name suggests, a mobile mortar that can fire both NATO and Soviet type ammunition. This flexibility and the ability to move quickly through a conflict zone is an undeniable advantage in ensuring control of a position, with loading and unloading taking only a few minutes.
Based on the previous Didgori, the Didgori Medevac was created, a medical vehicle that has also been ordered by Indonesia and Saudi Arabia. Far from being a major innovation, it meets a strong demand for armored medical vehicles in war zones involving civilian populations, as is the case in Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
Following this logic, there are two more Didgori, one with a turret that DELTA likes to present on its website as being able to be carried in C-130 aircraft. As well as a communication vehicle that can be used for signals intelligence and help communicate with troops on the battlefield.
Another type of armored vehicle, the Lazika, is less successful internationally. The Lazika can accommodate 10 people, including 3 crew members and 7 infantrymen. The troop section is equipped with individual passenger seats and soldiers can enter and exit the vehicle via a motorized ramp at the rear (an emergency door is also provided on the ramp).
The combat weight of the vehicle is 14 tons, which is considered much lighter than other modern ones. Designed primarily to carry an infantry group and its weapons, the Lazika offers mobility, protection and firepower to operators. The driver’s cabin and remote weapon station are equipped with day/night and thermal imaging cameras.
This point seems to be Georgia’s strength insofar as the artillery systems do not require much investment and will be put forward in case of an attempt to recover Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
There is an offer of a 120 mm self-propelled mortar module GMM-120. The weapon is stored and remains concealed inside the carrier until the large roof hatches open in preparation for firing missions. The mortar system is accompanied by an automated weapon station equipped with a fire control panel and digital navigation with GPS. It is supported by a state-of-the-art communication system.
The rate of fire is 15 rounds per minute with ranges from 480m to 7,100m (DELTA website). The vehicle can carry a total of 60 mortar rounds of various types, with the module itself carrying 10 rounds while two separate containers carry 25 rounds each. The weapon has a 360-degree movement capability and an elevation angle of almost 90 degrees.
More classically, there are GM-60 Mortar, GM-82 82mm Mortar, GM-120 120mm Mortar and the RS-122 Multiple Rocket Launching System. The latter is a modified version of the Soviet BM-21 Grad.
Protective equipment and small arms
DELTA also offers a wide range of protective helmets and waistcoats for the Georgian market as this sector is very competitive internationally. As for small arms, there is a wide range of anti-tank grenade launchers RPG-7G based on the Soviet model or non-lethal grenade launchers for the police ARGL-1.
The 12.7 mm AMR mod-1 rifle, 12.7 mm AMR mod-2 rifle, and the Satevari sniper rifle have good performance but, once again, are struggling in a competitive market. The importance of the latter can be seen in the Georgian strategy to retake Abkhazia and South Ossetia, two urban environments with sniper combat like during the conflicts in 1992 and 2008. This approach is reflected in the Satevari, whose design allows for a multi-caliber configuration with a total of seven types of cartridges that the weapon can fire, ranging from .308 Win to .50 BMG, giving it penetration capabilities against soft and lightly armored targets.
Three major projects are meeting national expectations, including a fire truck, an armored cash truck, and an anti-hail system.
The anti-hail rocket is an unguided 60 mm rocket, which carries 50-70 grams of silver iodide reagent and disperses it at an altitude of 2.5-4.5 km, for 30-35 seconds. The number of rockets needed in a year is estimated at 5000 units.
Because of the country’s expertise in the aviation sector, Georgia can also rely on TAM Management (TAMM), a privately owned Georgian military manufacturer that specializes in the maintenance, repair, overhaul, design and manufacture of military aircraft, civilian aircraft and air-to-air missiles, to return to the international stage.
As mentioned previously, the company specializes in the repair of Soviet aircraft and helicopters that abound in many parts of the world, including the Su-25, Mi8/17 and Mi 24/35. In 2019 TAM Management fully repaired and maintained the Su-25, L-39 and Mi-24 fleets of the Chadian Air Force.
The company is innovating and is presently working on the design of an unmanned aerial vehicle, the T-31, which would meet the contemporary needs of the South Caucasus as demonstrated by the events in Nagorno-Karabakh in 2020.
Conclusions on DELTA, TAM and the Georgian defense industry in general
We observe a desire to emancipate the country from procurement by foreign companies while continuing to reduce the share of Soviet equipment present in the Georgian armed forces. In this context, Georgia’s know-how in the sector of motor mechanics can be observed, and it has succeeded in exporting internationally with commands from countries having different expectations and quasi-antagonistic theatres of operations (desert in Saudi Arabia in contrast to the topical climate of Indonesia). Despite these successes, Georgian military exports are limited to a specific model, the Didgori Meomari, and the lack of innovation in military aircrafts and maritime equipment sectors reflects the difficulties of investing in large-scale projects to this day.
Conversely, TAM prefers to focus on the relics of the USSR by offering a maintenance service for Soviet fighter planes and the creation of a drone in parallel. Georgian products are therefore more competitive, but so is the arms market itself.
Georgia has proven it can innovate and show its know-how in niche areas of armaments, and the years to come will determine whether Tbilisi will be able to establish itself in the international markets as it did during the Cold War.
Salary costs, technical skills and experience on the ground could make Georgia a supplier of weaponry to emerging markets, notably in Middle-East and Africa, but this possibility will come up against suppliers of different origins, such as the Czech Republic and Ukraine, two countries that also have a strong know-how acquired during the Soviet period and competitive prices.
Delta official website: http://www.delta.gov.ge
TAMM official website: https://tamm.ge/t-31-uav/
Forbes, This New Armed Drone Is A Milestone In Proliferation, 2021. https://www.forbes.com/sites/davidhambling/2021/02/02/new-armed-drone-is-a-milestone-in-proliferation/?sh=73dd5b2c7f14
Interpressnews, The first Georgian unmanned aerial vehicle «T-31» is ready to take a worthy place in the armaments of any country, 2021.