‘Our weapons are computers’: Ukrainian coders aim to gain battlefield edge | Ukrainian

In a nondescript office building on the outskirts of Zaporizhzhia, Ukrainian soldiers have been honing what they believe will be a decisive weapon in their effort to repel the Russian invasion.

Inside, the weapon glows from a dozen computer screens – a constantly updated depiction of the evolving battlefield to the south. With one click on a menu, the map is populated with hordes of orange diamonds, showing Russian deployments. They reveal where tanks and artillery have been hidden, and intimate details of the units and the soldiers in them, gleaned from social media. Selecting another option from the menu lights up red arrows across the southern Zaporizhzhia region, showing the progression of Russian columns. Zooming in shows satellite imagery of the terrain in sharp detail.

It is called Delta, a software package developed by Ukrainian programmers to give their armed forces an advantage in a contest of which side can see the battlefield more clearly and therefore predict the enemy forces’ moves and strike them faster and more accurately.

While many scenes from the war in Ukraine look like a throwback to the first world war, with muddy trench networks and blasted landscapes, the conflict is also a testing ground for the future of warfare, where information and its dissemination in instantly usable form to individuals soldiers will be critical to victory or defeat.

A screen showing battlefield positions, past and present.
A screen showing battlefield positions, past and present. Photograph: Alessio Mamo/The Guardian

Vitalii, a computer expert at the defense ministry’s center for innovation and development of defense technologies, said Ukraine had a natural advantage as it had a younger, less hierarchical political culture.

“The biggest difference between the Russian army and the Ukrainian army are the horizontal links between the units,” Vitalii said. (Like other soldiers at the innovation center, he provided only his first name.) “We are winning mainly because we Ukrainians are naturally horizontal communicators.”

The suite of offices in Zaporizhzhia houses one of six “situational awareness centers” that Ukraine’s armed forces have set up on different fronts. A seventh is being established in the Donbass.

The Zaporizhzhia site, contributed by a local businessman, is the center’s sixth location – it has had to move repeatedly for security and logistical reasons. It is due to be transferred to a more permanent, custom-fitted home underground this month.

Delta is run by the innovation centre, whose staff have been drawn to a large degree from a volunteer organization of drone operators and programmers called Aerorozvidka (aerial reconnaissance).

Positions of Russian tanks spotted by drones
Positions of Russian tanks spotted by drones. Photograph: Alessio Mamo/The Guardian

Tatiana, another official at the innovation center, said the nature of its origins, as a private-public partnership, also gave it an edge.

“These were not bureaucrats from the defense ministry. They were from the corporate sector who were mobilized to serve in the army,” he said. “They started to make Delta with their own minds and hands, because they have this culture of agile development. The creative process has a short circle. You develop it, you test it, you launch it.”

Delta was first presented to Nato member states at the end of October, having been developed by Aerorozvidka coders in 2015 and been deployed on a growing scale over the past four years, during which time much of Aerorozvidka was absorbed into the innovation center.

Its informal origins were evident inside the Zaporizhzhia hub, which had more the feel of a graduate computer science faculty than a military unit. The only person in uniform was a military intelligence officer, who went by the pseudonym Sergeant Shlomo.

The office at one end of the main corridor has been turned into a drone workshop where two engineers were working to perfect a bomb release mechanism activated by the light only commercially bought quadcopters. The release mechanism and the tailfin for the bombs were made on 3D printers. Boxes of armored-piercing bomblets were stacked up by the door.

A drone with a bomblet to be used against Russian positions.
A drone with a bomblet to be used against Russian positions. Photograph: Alessio Mamo/The Guardian

At the other end of the corridor was the open source intelligence (Osint) department, where half a dozen young men were scrolling through masses of social media posts by Russian recruits, extracting date and location information from them, and feeding the results into Delta.

One screen showed a couple of soldiers from Dagestan striking martial poses for the camera. The picture and intelligence gleaned from it about their unit, its capabilities and orders would be accessible within minutes through one click on the Delta map near Melitopol, a Russian-held town 80 miles (130km) to the south, which is becoming one of the new focal points on the southern front.

The whiteboard in the Osint office recorded the fact that it was 280 day of the war, by which date it was estimated that 88,880 Russians had died. “Fuck them up” was the day’s message scrawled in marker alongside this tally.

The other main channels of information flowing into Delta come from satellite imagery supplied by Nato partners, which provided the foundation for the battlefield map; drone footage, which is uploaded daily; and photos and information supplied by a network of informers behind Russian lines, which are run in part by Shlomo.

All that information is embedded in layers on the Delta battlefield map, which is kept live and accessible to its military users via Starlink satellite communications. On the screen, Melitopol had the biggest concentration of orange diamonds and red arrows, showing Russian columns on the move.

A night-vision drone photo of a Russian tank
A night-vision drone photo of a Russian tank. Photograph: Alessio Mamo/The Guardian

“We now understand their routes and how they have changed,” Shlomo said. “They are using Melitopol as a big logistics center, and we are trying to understand the real purpose of the movements.”

They were looking in particular for sightings of tanks and mobile bridges, which could herald an intention to mount an imminent attack and warrant a particular red flag in the Delta chatrooms. Over recent days, Ukrainian forces had targeted an army barracks and a bridge there.

Every day, each situational awareness center puts together a digest of the latest developments in its sector, and there is a live briefing at 6pm summarizing and discussing the conclusions.

“A small Soviet army cannot win against a large Soviet army. We have to evolve. We have to be smart,” Shlomo said. “The main task of the war for Ukraine now is to transform from a Soviet army to a Nato one. You have to change the army to a horizontal one.”

That change has been a struggle. The Ukrainian army grew out of its Soviet predecessors, and many of its older officers have been shaped by that experience. In 2020, the generals even shut down the Aerorozvidka units; it was only restored by the defense ministry as the innovation center months before the Russian all-out invasion.

The Donbas front was the last to establish its own situational awareness center, in part because of resistance within the army, and as a result it suffered most from lack of coordination and friendly fire, officials from the innovation center argued. “It’s been total chaos,” one official said.

“I don’t think they’re quite there yet,” said Nick Reynolds, a land warfare analyst at the Royal United Services Institute in London. “There are some centers of excellence within the Ukrainian armed forces, but it’s not blanket. The military culture imposed under the Soviet Union casts a very long shadow.”

However, Reynolds said the Ukrainians were far ahead of Russian forces in making their forces more connected and agile. “Ultimately, the Russian side has not fundamentally changed their structures or practices. They have some level of technological enablement, but at the human level they are still very Soviet.”

A screen showing a drone photo of a Russian tank
A screen showing a drone photo of a Russian tank. Photograph: Alessio Mamo/The Guardian

A Nato report on 30 November about Ukraine’s Delta programme, seen by the Guardian, noted that the software had yet to be formally adopted by Ukraine’s armed forces, and therefore was not universally used, meaning that intelligence shared by Nato allies was not making its way down to all the regional commands.

The infowarriors at the innovations center say they are breaking Ukrainian army official doctrine by establishing horizontal links between military units with the use of Delta. “We can’t rewrite doctrine and fight at the same time,” Tatiana said. “We will write the doctrine after victory.”

The next step in spreading Delta, he said, was the establishment of Istar (intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition, and reconnaissance) officers at the headquarters and brigade level, and then the creation of a dedicated Istar battalion.

Meanwhile, the innovation center is asking western weapons donors to make available the software protocols that would allow new weapons systems to be seamlessly wired into Delta.

Shlomo said the integration of battlefield information across the army through Delta was a race Ukraine had to win. “This is the big story we are writing that will change the war,” he said. “Our weapons are computers. Our bullets are information.”