How Ukraine turns cheap tablets into lethal weapons

Kyiv, Ukraine – A few years before Russia invaded Ukraine, Oleksiy Savchenko helped develop one of the deadliest and cheapest weapons used by thousands of Ukrainian service members.

In 2014, he was among the protesters whose months-long rallies in Kiev finally ousted pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych.

In retaliation, Moscow annexed Crimea and launched a separatist war in southeastern Ukraine. Because of this, Savchenko started a non-governmental organization called Army SOS with like-minded activists.

The group raised money to get flak jackets and other military gear for former insurgents who volunteered to fight the separatists despite being ill-equipped and poorly trained.

And as the group delivered gear to the front lines, volunteers and service members asked for anything they needed.

Guys, give us maps, we want maps, we only have Soviet ones from the 1980s. Where there used to be a farm, there is now a village or an apartment building,” Savchenko was telling them.

But instead of printing thousands of pages, Army SOS went for a technical solution.

He asked a group of software developers in Kiev to install satellite maps and Ukrainian military data on tablets and smartphones.

According to a Ukrainian service member who responded to the innovation in 2014, troops began to see their surroundings better, and the tools allowed them to fix artillery more clearly and accurately.

Some other suggestions were given.

“Can you add an option to measure distance? Can we enter the index? Can we guide and calculate the artillery fire?” was most important, Savchenko told Al Jazeera.

The Soviet-era way of directing fire required manual data entry and the use of artillery tables for calculations that took 15 minutes.

But what Army SOS and the developers came up with changed the whole system.

The software, called Kropiva (the nettle), is part of a series of high-tech equipment and weapons that have helped transform the Ukrainian military from a demure to a serious resistance force.

Kropiva is “an example of private enterprise and the effective use of civilian mechanisms in the military,” Pavel Luzin, a Russia-based defense analyst at the Jamestown Foundation, a think tank in Washington, DC, told Al Jazeera.

Oleksiy Savchenko pictured in his office, which is decorated with the Ukrainian flag [Mansur Mirovalev/Al Jazeera]

The software turns any Android-based tablet costing $150 or more into the basic unit of an automated precision guidance system.

The tablet can receive and transmit coordinates to fix artillery from its user, drones or radars.

It can measure the distance to targets and live shots of every type of artillery used in the Ukrainian army.

The tablet also receives meteorological data that can affect every shot – wind speed and direction, temperature and humidity.

If web access is not available to stay in touch with command centers, a tablet can use a portable radio station.

Calculations are made and transmitted in seconds – time that can save lives and destroy an enemy.

“It’s fast and accurate,” Sevchenko said, sitting in the group’s office in central Kiev, filled with boxes with new tablets and decorated with flags of Ukrainian military units signed by grateful service members.

Tablets save lives in other ways, too.

“People came to the mine. And using the tablet with Kropiva came out alive, Antonina Baiura, a volunteer with the group, told Al Jazeera.

Army SOS and developers provided the software code for free to the Ukrainian army in 2018.

A competitive approach

Each pill is like a worker bee in a hive.

It only contains information about its user’s immediate vicinity. If seized, a password-protected tablet can be rendered digitally dead from the server.

And even if Russian or separatist service members get hold of an operating tablet, their superiors strongly recommend against using it.

“Only a mousetrap can get free cheese. Trophy Ukrainian software is a mousetrap,” Russian military publication Top War warned in May.

The anonymous author of the article alleges that the data in each tablet ends up in the United States – and that entering Russian maps would provide the enemy with vital information.

The publication also lamented the lack of similar software in the Russian military.

“Even if such software existed, it was not supplied to front-line military units,” the author concluded.

This finding underscores the evolutionary differences in the ways Russia and Ukraine develop new weapons.

Russia’s military-industrial complex is mired in corruption and inefficiency, with bloated budgets and an opaque contracting system, analysts say.

Kropiva is hardly possible in Russia because its military-industrial complex is “too clumsy and heavily burdened by intelligence officers who live as parasites,” analyst Luzhin said.

“Analogs [of Kropiva] It is possible, but they will be much more expensive and less useful and effective,” he said.

Transparency improvement

Ukraine also inherited part of the Soviet military-industrial complex.

More than a hundred arms developers and manufacturers make up Ukroboronprom, a state-run conglomerate where corruption is so notorious it has drawn criticism from Washington.

“If Ukraine loses its soul to corruption, there is no point in Ukraine fighting for its body in Donbas,” Rex Tillerson, then US secretary of state, said in 2016.

These days, Ukroboronprom is going through a painful transition to transparency as its plants and research bureau are targeted by Russian cruise missiles.

Unlike their adversaries, the Ukrainian military has not preferred brand new, domestically-developed weaponry.

Defense Ministry urged Army SOS to stay away from mass media.

“The military asked us to get off the radar and not be in the limelight,” Savchenko said. “But they don’t have an answer [our] The question is where to get the money to fund the projects.

According to Savchenko, articles about his initiative have led to donations in the past.

These funds have already helped purchase thousands of tablets and smartphones, and the wait is up to four days for service members who want to install Kropiva on their devices.

Army SOS protects the identities of its volunteers, software developers, and service members who use Cropiva.

“I’m just talking. If I am killed, the process will continue,” said Savchenko.

The volunteers around him are civilians who never planned to join the military – and will return to their everyday lives after the war.

“We end the war victoriously,” he said, “and go back to our jobs.”

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