Kyiv, Ukraine – Years before Russia invaded Ukraine, Oleksiy Savchenko helped develop one of the most lethal and inexpensive weapons now in use by thousands of Ukrainian servicemen.
In 2014, he was among the protesters whose months-long rallies in Kyiv ousted pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych.
In retaliation, Moscow annexed Crimea and fueled a separatist war in southeastern Ukraine. This led Savchenko, along with like-minded activists, to create an NGO called Army SOS.
The group raised money to buy flak jackets and other military equipment for former protesters who volunteered to fight the separatists despite their poor equipment and training.
And when the group delivered equipment to the front lines, volunteers and service members demanded something they desperately needed.
“Guys, give us maps, we need maps, we have only Soviet maps from the 80s. Savchenko recalls their saying: “When there was a field there was now a village or an apartment building.”
But instead of printing thousands of pages, Army SOS resorted to a technical solution.
They asked a group of software developers in Kyiv to install satellite maps and Ukrainian military data on tablets and smartphones.
According to a member of the Ukrainian service who responded to the novelty in 2014, the troops began to see their surroundings better, and the tools allowed them to more clearly and accurately correct the artillery.
More suggestions passed.
“Can you add an option to measure the distance? Can we enter the coordinates? Can we direct and calculate artillery fire?” Savchenko told Al Jazeera it is the most important.
The Soviet-era method of aiming fire required manual data entry and the use of artillery tables to make calculations that took up to 15 minutes.
But what Army SOS and the developers came up with changed the entire system.
Known as Kropiva (Nettle), the program is part of a series of high-tech equipment and weapons that helped transform the Ukrainian army from a frustrated underdog into a serious resistance force.
Pavel Luzhin, a Russia-based defense analyst at the Jamestown Foundation, a Washington DC think-tank, told Al Jazeera that Krupeva “is an example of private initiative and effective use of civilian systems in the military.”
The program turns any Android tablet that costs $150 or more into a base unit for an automated micro-guidance system.
The tablet can obtain and send coordinates to correct artillery fire from its user, from a drone, or from radar.
It can calculate the distance to targets and direct shots for each type of artillery used in the Ukrainian army.
The tablet also gets meteorological data that can influence each shot – wind speed and direction, temperature and humidity.
If there is no web access to connect to the command posts, the tablet can use portable radio stations.
Calculations are made and sent within seconds – time that can save lives and destroy the enemy.
“It’s fast and accurate,” said Savchenko, as he sat in the group’s office in central Kyiv, crammed with boxes of fresh discs decorated with the flags of Ukrainian military units signed by members of the fun service.
The tablet also saves lives in other ways.
People came to a minefield. And she came out alive “using a disk with Krupiva,” Antonina Pura, a volunteer with the group, told Al Jazeera.
Army SOS and developers handed over the software code to the Ukrainian army for free in 2018.
Each disk is like a worker bee in a hive.
It contains information only about the immediate surroundings of the user. If it is hacked, the password-protected tablet can be made digitally dead from the server.
And even if Russian or separatist service personnel get a working tablet, their superiors strongly recommend against using it.
“One can only find free cheese in a mousetrap. A Russian military publication, Top War, warned last May.
The anonymous author of the article claimed that the data from each tablet ends up in the United States – and that the introduction of Russian maps will provide the enemy with important information.
The publication also lamented the lack of similar programs in the Russian army.
The author concluded that “even where such programs existed, they were not provided to military units on the front lines.”
This conclusion underscores the evolutionary difference between the ways Russia and Ukraine are developing new weapons.
Analysts say Russia’s military-industrial complex is mired in corruption and inefficiency, coupled with bloated budgets and an opaque contracting system.
Analyst Luzhin said Krupeva is hardly feasible in Russia because its military-industrial complex is “so clumsy and burdened with a mass of intelligence officers living on it as parasites”.
“Analogues [of Kropiva] Possible, but it will be much more expensive and will be much less useful and effective.”
Ukraine also inherited part of the Soviet military-industrial complex.
More than a hundred weapons developers and producers make up the Ukroboronprom Corporation, a state-run conglomerate where corruption has been so infamous that it has drawn criticism from Washington.
“It is no use for Ukraine to fight for its body in Donbass if it loses its soul to corruption,” Rex Tillerson, then US Secretary of State, said in 2016.
These days, Ukroboronprom is going through a painful transition to transparency as its factories and research offices are being targeted by Russian cruise missiles.
Unlike their opponents, the Ukrainian army prefers not to advertise the new domestically developed weapons.
The Department of Defense even urged the Army’s SOS to stay away from the media.
“The military told us to stay off the radar and not be in the spotlight,” Savchenko said. “But they have no answer to [our] A question about where we will get the money to fund the projects.”
According to Savchenko, previously articles about his initiative led to donations.
This money has already helped buy thousands of tablets and smartphones, and there is a queue of up to four days for service members who want to install Kropiva on their devices.
Army SOS protects the identities of volunteers, software developers, and service members who use Kropiva.
“I’m just a boss talking. If I’m killed, the process will continue,” said Savchenko.
The volunteers around him are civilians who never planned to work with the military – and will return to their daily lives after the war.
“We end the war with victory and go back to our jobs,” he said.
“Infuriatingly humble alcohol fanatic. Unapologetic beer practitioner. Analyst.”