Three months ago, when Ukrainian troops were making headway against Russian forces in the south of the country, Military HQ in Kiev sent a valuable new weapon onto the battlefield.
It was not a rocket launcher, a cannon or any other type of Western Allied heavy weaponry. It was a real-time information system known as Delta: an online network that military troops, civilian authorities, and even authorized ordinary citizens could use to track and share urgent information about Russian forces.
Developed in coordination with NATO, the software had barely been battle-tested until then.
But when Ukrainian forces moved through the Kherson region in a major counter-offensive, they used the Delta, as well as powerful weaponry supplied by the West, to drive the Russians out of cities and towns they had occupied for months.
The big reward came on Friday (11), with the Russian withdrawal from the regional capital, one of the most targeted targets in the war that has lasted nearly nine months.
The Delta is an example of how Ukraine has become a testing ground for cutting-edge weapons and information systems and new ways to use them — which Western politicians and militaries predict could define how wars are fought for generations.
It is true that the battle in Ukraine is still largely an exhausting war of attrition, with relentless and constant artillery attacks and other tactics used in World War II. The two sides mostly use Soviet-era weapons, and Kiev has said its stockpiles of ammunition for some of them are dwindling.
But at the same time that traditional warfare is being fought, new advances in technology and training are being closely monitored to see how they change the appearance of combat. In addition to the Delta, these tools include remote-operated boats, SkyWipers anti-drone weapons and a modernized version of a German-made air defense system that the German Armed Forces themselves have not yet used.
“Ukraine is the best testing ground as we have the opportunity to put all hypotheses to the test in a battle situation and introduce revolutionary changes in technology and modern instruments,” said Mikhailo Fedorov, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Ukraine’s Digital Transformation in October at a NATO conference in Virginia, where it discussed the Delta publicly for the first time.
Fedorov also highlighted the increasing use of remotely operated aircraft and boats, which military experts say are becoming first-of-choice weapons, something not seen in any previous war.
“Over the past two weeks we have become convinced again that the wars of the future will use maximum drones and minimum humans.”
In the Black Sea, these explosive-laden boats culminated in a daring attack against the Russian fleet in October.
Military officials have generally declined to comment or give details of the vessels, but the US and Germany have supplied similar vessels to Ukraine. Chaurav Gairola, an analyst at intelligence firm Janes, says the Black Sea attack revealed a sophisticated level of planning, given the apparent success of the small, relatively cheap boats against powerful Russian warships.
According to him, the attack “imposes a paradigm shift in naval warfare doctrines and symbolizes an expression of futuristic war tactics”, showing how war at sea can unfold at a time when the US and allies prepare for potential future naval aggression from the China against Taiwan.
Inevitably, the increased use of drones by Russian forces has encouraged Ukraine’s allies to send in new technology to thwart them.
At the end of last year, Ukrainian forces began using SkyWipers, which interfere with drones, to thwart Russian separatists in the Donbass region. They can divert drones or disrupt their operation by blocking communication signals. They were developed in Lithuania and had been on the market for just two years — until they were given to Ukraine through a NATO program.
Today SkyWipers are just one type of drone jammer in use across Kiev. But they were identified as a highly coveted instrument.
Rafael Loss of the European Council on Foreign Relations says that modernized air defenses alone will not be able to drastically change the war situation, but that their use in Ukraine shows how Kiev has already evolved, leaving behind Soviet-era methods and aligning with what is done by NATO.
More than an early warning system, Delta combines real-time maps and images of enemy assets, even showing how many soldiers are on the move and the type of weapons they carry.
That information is combined with intelligence — including information obtained from spy satellites, drones and government sources — to decide where and how Ukrainian troops should attack.
Kiev and Western powers determined they needed the system after Russia instigated a separatist-backed war in eastern Ukraine in 2014. The system was developed by the Ministry of Defense with assistance from NATO and was initially tested in 2017, in part to teach the troops not to follow the Russian pattern of splitting information between ground units rather than sharing it.
Since then, the system has been included in training exercises involving Ukrainian and NATO military planners.
Information sharing has been standard practice for US and NATO forces for years. What alliance officials found surprising in Delta is that the network is so widely available to troops that it has helped them make decisions on the battlefield even more nimbly than more modern militaries. In Kherson, it helped quickly identify Russian supply lines to attack, according to Inna Honchar, commander of the non-governmental group Aerorozvidka, which develops drones.
“Bridges were key points. Warehouses and checkpoints were damaged and supplying troops became critical,” he said, as the Russians became increasingly isolated.
The first time the Delta was really put to the test was in the weeks immediately following the February invasion, when a 40-mile Russian convoy made its way to Kiev. Ukrainian drones flew overhead and tracked its progress, and troops assessed the best points to intercept the convoy. Residents sent constantly updated information to the government with details that could only be seen at close range.
All the information was collected, analyzed and disseminated through the Delta to help Ukrainian forces force the Russians to retreat, according to Ukrainian leaders.
“That was the first moment when the possibilities of using Delta were fully put into action,” the Ministry of Defense said in a statement. Since then, Delta has reportedly helped identify an average of 1,500 Russian targets across the country a day, “hundreds of which were eliminated” within 48 hours.
Weapons testing in Ukraine is helping defense officials and planners for the US and its allies decide how to invest military dollars over the next two decades.
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