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For Western Weapons, the Ukraine War Is a Beta Test

Though the battle for Ukraine remains largely a grinding artillery war, new advances in technology and training there are being closely monitored for the ways they are starting to shape combat.

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Soldiers with Ukraine’s Carpathian Sich Battalion reviewing drone footage below the front line in May.

Soldiers with Ukraine’s Carpathian Sich Battalion reviewing drone footage below the front line in May.Credit…Lynsey Addario for The New York Times

Lara Jakes
Nov. 15, 2022Updated 6:10 a.m. ET

Three months ago, as Ukrainian troops were struggling to advance against Russian forces in the south, the military’s headquarters in Kyiv quietly deployed a valuable new weapon to the battlefield.

It was not a rocket launcher, cannon or another kind of heavy arms from Western allies. Instead, it was a real-time information system known as Delta — an online network that military troops, civilian officials and even vetted bystanders could use to track and share desperately needed details about Russian forces.

The software, developed in coordination with NATO, had barely been tested in battle.

But as they moved across the Kherson region in a major counteroffensive, Ukraine’s forces employed Delta, as well as powerful weaponry supplied by the West, to push the Russians out of towns and villages they had occupied for months.

The big payoff came on Friday with the retreat of Russian forces from Kherson City — a major prize in the nearly nine-month war.

Delta is one example of how Ukraine has become a testing ground for state-of-the-art weapons and information systems, and new ways to use them, that Western political officials and military commanders predict could shape warfare for generations to come.

The battle for Ukraine, to be sure, remains largely a grinding war of attrition, with relentless artillery attacks and other World War II-era tactics. Both sides primarily rely on Soviet-era weapons, and Ukraine has reported running low on ammunition for them.

But even as the traditional warfare is underway, new advances in technology and training in Ukraine are being closely monitored for the ways they are changing the face of the fight. Beyond Delta, they include remote-controlled boats, anti-drone weapons known as SkyWipers and an updated version of an air-defense system built in Germany that the German military itself has yet to use.

“Ukraine is the best test ground, as we have the opportunity to test all hypotheses in battle and introduce revolutionary change in military tech and modern warfare,” said Mykhailo Fedorov, Ukraine’s vice prime minister and minister of digital transformation.

He was speaking in October at a NATO conference in Norfolk, Va., where he publicly discussed Delta for the first time.

He also emphasized the growing reliance on the remote-controlled aircraft and boats that officials and military experts said have become weapons of choice like those in no previous war.

“In the last two weeks, we have been convinced once again the wars of the future will be about maximum drones and minimal humans,” Mr. Federov said.

A Ukrainian drone operator changing batteries while hunting for Russian positions to target with artillery during a battle on the frontline near the Russian-occupied city of Donetsk in October.Credit…Finbarr O’Reilly for The New York Times

Since last summer, Ukraine and its allies have been testing remote-controlled boats packed with explosives in the Black Sea, culminating in a bold attack in October against Russia’s fleet off the coast of Sevastopol.

Military officials largely have declined to discuss the attack or provide details about the boats, but both the United States and Germany have supplied Ukraine with similar ships this year. Shaurav Gairola, a naval weapons analyst for Janes, a defense intelligence firm, said the Black Sea strike showed a sophisticated level of planning, given the apparent success of the small and relatively inexpensive boats against Russia’s mightier war ships.

The attack “has pushed the conflict envelope,” Mr. Gairola said. He said it “imposes a paradigm shift in naval war doctrines and symbolizes an expression of futuristic warfare tactics.”

The use of remote-controlled boats could become particularly important, military experts said, showing how warfare at sea might play out as the United States and its allies brace for potential future naval aggressions by China in the East and South China Seas, and against Taiwan.

Inevitably, the Russians’ increased use of drones has spurred Ukraine’s allies to send new technology to stop them.

Late last year, Ukraine’s military began using the newly developed drone-jamming guns known as SkyWipers to thwart Russian separatists in the eastern Donbas region. The SkyWipers, which can divert or disrupt drones by blocking their communication signals, were developed in Lithuania and had been on the market for only two years before they were given to Ukraine through a NATO security assistance program.

Nearly nine months into the war, the SkyWipers are now only one kind of drone jammer being used in Ukraine. But they have been singled out as a highly coveted battlefield asset — both for Ukrainian troops and enemy forces that hope to capture them.

Ukrainian service members holding anti-drone guns during a training exercise in the Mykolaiv region in August.Credit…Anna Kudriavtseva/Reuters

It is not known how many SkyWipers have been sent to Ukraine, although Lithuania reportedly sent several dozen in October 2021. In a statement to The New York Times, Lithuania’s defense ministry said it sent 50 SkyWipers in August after Ukrainian officials called it “one of the top priorities.”

Dalia Grybauskaite, who was Lithuania’s president when the SkyWipers were being designed, said her country’s defense industry made a calculated turn toward producing high-tech equipment during her time in office, from 2009 to 2019, to update a stockpile of weapons that “were mainly Kalashnikovs” and other Soviet-era arms.

“We’re learning in Ukraine how to fight, and we’re learning how to use our NATO equipment,” Ms. Grybauskaite said in an interview last week. “And, yes, it is a teaching battleground.”

She paused, then added: “It is shameful for me because Ukrainians are paying with their lives for these exercises for us.”

The Western lethal aid that is being sent to Ukraine consists, for the most part, of recently updated versions of older weapons. That was the case with the German-made infrared, medium-range homing missiles and launchers known as IRIS-T, which protect against Russian rocket attacks.

They have a longer range than the previous generation of air-defense systems that debuted in 2015. Germany’s own military has not yet used the updated version of the systems, which were shipped to Ukraine last month. Additional missiles were delivered last week.

Rafael Loss, a weapons expert at the European Council on Foreign Relations, said that by themselves the upgraded air defenses do not “represent a game-changer.” But he said their use in Ukraine showed how the government in Kyiv had evolved beyond Soviet-era warfare and brought it more in line with NATO.

Senior NATO and Ukrainian officials said the Delta network was a prime example.

More than an early alert system, Delta combines real-time maps and pictures of enemy assets, down to how many soldiers are on the move and what kinds of weapons they are carrying, officials said.

That is combined with intelligence — including from surveillance satellites, drones and other government sources — to decide where and how Ukrainian troops should attack.

The IRIS-T air-defense system displayed at an exhibition in Berlin in June.Credit…Fabrizio Bensch/Reuters

Ukraine and Western powers determined they needed the system after Russia instigated a separatist-backed war in Ukraine’s east in 2014. It was developed by Ukraine’s Defense Ministry with NATO assistance and first tested in 2017, in part to wean troops off Russian standards of siloing information among ground units instead of sharing it.

It has been included in training exercises between Ukraine’s military and other NATO planners in the years since.

Information sharing has long been a staple for American and other NATO forces. What NATO officials said was surprising about the Delta system was that the network was so broadly accessible to troops that it helped them make battlefield decisions even faster than some more modern militaries. In Kherson, Delta helped Ukrainian troops quickly identify Russian supply lines to attack, Inna Honchar, commander of the nongovernment group Aerorozvidka, which develops drones and other technology for Ukraine’s military, said in a statement on Sunday.

“Bridges were certainly key points,” Ms. Honchar added. “Warehouses and control points were damaged, and the provision of troops became critical” as Russians became increasingly isolated, she said.

Delta’s first real test had come in the weeks immediately after the February invasion as a Russian convoy stretching 40 miles long headed toward Kyiv. Ukrainian drones overhead tracked its advance, and troops assessed the best places to intercept it. Residents texted up-to-the-minute reports to the government with details that could have been seen only up close.

All the information was collected, analyzed and disseminated through Delta to help Ukraine’s military force a Russian retreat, Ukrainian officials said.

“That was the very first moment when Delta capabilities were realized at max,” the Ukrainian Defense Ministry said in a statement. It said Delta had since helped identify 1,500 confirmed Russian targets across the country on any given day — with “hundreds of them being eliminated” within 48 hours.

Destroyed Russian tanks on a main road after battles near Brovary, north of Kyiv, in March.Credit…Felipe Dana/Associated Press

The test runs in Ukraine are helping senior officials and defense planners in the United States and its allies decide how to invest military spending over the next two decades.

Even routine missions in Ukraine — like how to get fuel to missile-toting vehicles on the edge of enemy territory — have set off discussions in American commands over how to design equipment that is not dependent on supply lines.

And longer-term strategy about how to coordinate and communicate among allied troops, which officials now say was a challenge during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, is being developed as the battle against Russia continues to unfold.

Such strategic military reforms were being discussed before Ukraine was invaded, said Gen. Philippe Lavigne of France, who leads NATO’s Allied Command Transformation, but “our early observations of this war is that those assumptions are still valid.”

He said Ukraine had shown how future warfare was likely to be fast-paced and highly contested not just on the ground or in the skies, but also, most important, in cyberspace.

“This is the future operating environment,” General Lavigne said.