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

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

In a nondescript office building on the outskirts of Zaporizhzhia, Ukrainian soldiers have been honing what they believed 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 portrayal 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. Choosing 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 individual 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 defence’s ministry’s centre for innovation and development of defence technologies, said Ukraine had a natural advantage as it had a younger, less hierarchical political culture.

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

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

The Zaporizhzhia site, contributed by a local businessman, is the centre’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 organisation of drone operators and programmers called Aerorozvidka (aerial reconnaissance).

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

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

“These were not bureaucrats from the defence ministry. They were from the corporate sector who were mobilised to serve in the army,” she said. “They started to make Delta with their own minds and hands, because they had 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 centre.

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 had been turned into a drone workshop where two engineers were working to perfect a bomb release mechanism activated by the light on commercially bought quadcopters. The release mechanism and the tailfin for the bombs were made on 3D printers. Boxes of armoured-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 day 280 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 through 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 centre, 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, Ukraine forces had targeted an army barracks and a bridge there.

Every day, each situational awareness centre puts together a digest of the latest developments in its sector, and there is a live briefing at 6pm summarising 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 unit; it was only restored by the defence ministry as the innovation centre months before the Russian all-out invasion.

The Donbas front is the last to establish its own situational awareness centre, in part because of resistance within the army, and as a result it has suffered most from lack of coordination and friendly fire, officials from the innovation centre 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 centres 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 on 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 centre 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, she 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 centre 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.”