August 6, 2023 at 1:00 a.m. EDT
A 3-man group final month manually directed a drone to hit a cluster of antennas affixed to a tower in Polohy, a city occupied by Russian troops in Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia area. The Russians had been utilizing the digital warfare system to spoil the work of Ukraine’s satellite-guided rockets.
The drone, manufactured from Styrofoam-like materials and costing $1,500, crashed into one of many antennas, detonating on contact. With the Russians’ jamming capacity all of the sudden disrupted, the Ukrainians then destroyed the tower with a strike from a U.S.-provided Excessive Mobility Artillery Rocket System, or HIMARS. The missile slammed into the construction with the type of precision the Ukrainians have come to depend on of their 17-month battle to expel the Russian occupiers. However had the drone not disabled one of many antennas first, the HIMARS rocket probably would have missed.
That type of operation has change into a trademark of particular forces items such because the Safety Service of Ukraine’s “A,” or Alpha, division, which lately granted Washington Submit journalists uncommon entry to their groups helping common navy brigades in Ukraine’s counteroffensive, which now stretches throughout the nation’s southeast.
The character of this warfare — fought principally at a distance with artillery and with the edges separated by densely mined fields — has pressured conventional particular operators to transition from covert techniques they used extra typically earlier within the battle. Now, the preventing is essentially completed with expertise, together with a wide selection of self-detonating drones, whereas the expert troopers direct them from a secure distance — a preferable risk-to-reward ratio than sneaking behind Russian traces.
“What’s the downside with going behind enemy traces? Complete mining,” mentioned Oleh, the primary deputy director of the Alpha forces, who, like others on this story, requested to be recognized solely by his first title for safety causes. “It’s virtually unattainable to go someplace secretly. It’s a must to use some form of demining gear. This implies you’ll already be recognized.”
The work of the Alpha items supplied a window into the early challenges in Ukraine’s counteroffensive, the place restricted advances have been hard-gained because the Russians have hunkered down in defenses ready over many months. Alpha fighters are skilled to do every part from firing an antitank missile to working a cellular air-defense system. Their snipers are thought to be the very best in Ukraine. However all have turned their focus to drones currently as their targets turned harder to achieve.
The struggles of the Alpha fighters illustrate the steep challenges the Ukrainian navy now faces at each stage — even amongst its most elite and efficient items — because it runs right into a Russian pressure that has ready and adjusted since its repeated missteps final fall when Ukraine recaptured massive swaths of territory within the Kharkiv and Kherson areas.
The jap entrance line, close to the besieged metropolis of Bakhmut, is much less mined than the vast fields of the southern Zaporizhzhia area. However it’s nonetheless laborious to get near the Russians. Not too long ago, a group of Oleh’s fighters had “a comparatively shallow entry” into enemy turf close to there and 14 of them had been wounded, he mentioned.
“And with our assets, the lack of 14 individuals is a large loss for us,” Oleh mentioned. “Sure, the enemy additionally suffers losses. However once more, are our losses acceptable in these situations and are they justified? I can’t use these 14 individuals in different operations within the close to future.”
“The issues that may very well be completed a yr and a half in the past or a yr in the past, which had been comparatively secure and had been completed, now we have to assess the appropriateness,” he added.
Ukraine’s fundamental inside safety service, the SBU, created its Alpha division in 1994 with a concentrate on counterterrorism operations. That work stays, however extra has been added amid warfare.
The top of the SBU, Vasyl Maliuk, lately confirmed that its specialists had been accountable for attacking the Crimean Bridge final yr, a dramatic strike that quickly disrupted a key Russian provide route. The service has additionally been behind latest sea drone strikes on Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, based on a Ukrainian official, who spoke on the situation of anonymity. The official was not approved to debate the matter publicly.
When the Russians had been making an attempt to seize of Kyiv, Alpha’s fundamental process was defending the federal government and its leaders, together with President Volodymyr Zelensky, Oleh mentioned. However since final yr, he has spent most of his time in Zaporizhzhia, now overseeing Alpha items helping in the principle focus of Ukraine’s counteroffensive — a bid to sever the land hall between Russia and Crimea.
Alpha is selective: To get in, it’s a must to cross a health check, a polygraph and a psychological examination. Efforts to widen recruiting throughout the warfare to type a separate assault unit yielded simply 80 new members, Oleh mentioned.
Like different particular forces, Alpha groups can typically have the identical features as common navy brigades, similar to working a howitzer. However their assignments are sometimes completed in small teams — meant to inflict excessive enemy losses utilizing fewer assets.
All the Alpha division has only one artillery gun, a 105mm British L119 that’s at present within the Zaporizhzhia area, utilized by a bunch that calls itself “Tiger Woods,” as a result of its strikes are as correct because the American golfer. At a base close to the city of Orikhiv, the fighters have a satellite tv for pc picture of the Zaporizhzhia plains divided into squares. Typically the preventing, they mentioned, is happening within the skinny tree traces that separate every subject. That’s the place the Russians have their posts and conceal their weapons.
Due to the dense community of mines, the Ukrainians are advancing, slowly, on foot. Right here, south of Orikhiv, they’ve moved greater than two miles because the counteroffensive began in early June, the Alpha troopers mentioned.
Not too long ago, they mentioned, a bunch of troopers approached a Russian trench line they thought was deserted. As they began to stroll via it, they realized the ditch was booby-trapped with mines. All 5 Ukrainians had been injured by the blasts, and the Russians, who had been hiding close by, then began taking pictures, killing 4 of them. One wounded soldier escaped after different Ukrainian items began firing shells on the trench. They’d watched the ambush of their comrades on a feed from a reconnaissance drone.
“Mines are in every single place, on the outskirts of the trenches,” mentioned Ilya, an officer in Alpha’s artillery unit. “First, it needs to be cleared by artillery, then assault teams will go. If the assault group encounters any resistance, it’s again to the artillery, then again to the assault teams. Very slowly. However that is our actuality.”
Moderately than contending with minefields, the place Alpha has achieved biggest success is with loitering munitions, which vary in dimension and value. The three-man group that destroyed the antenna tower focuses on targets associated to Russians’ jamming capacity and communication infrastructure.
A second group working within the Zaporizhzhia area lately used a RAM II self-detonating drone made in Ukraine, which appears to be like like a small grey airplane with a propeller within the again and might fly as much as 25 miles.
The Alpha division alone this yr has broken or destroyed greater than 322 tanks and armored autos, 48 artillery techniques and 65 particular gear objects, together with digital warfare, mentioned Oleh, the deputy director.
However “now it’s harder,” mentioned Pasha, who heads the Alpha unit launching the RAM II drones.
Since final yr, the Russians have been utilizing a Pole-21 digital warfare system that suppresses all satellite tv for pc navigation over an space of as much as 150 sq. kilometers. Meaning “we fly by landmarks, we don’t have GPS right here in any respect,” Pasha mentioned. And sometimes, simply when the drone might need a goal in sight, the feed will go darkish due to the Russians’ jamming.
It’s positioned a premium on focusing on the digital warfare techniques themselves.
“We’ve very exact means,” Pasha mentioned. “The navy prioritizes giving us a goal to hit, and solely then, if we will’t hit it, they switch it to HIMARS or artillery — as a result of artillery could not hit in any respect, and HIMARS additionally has nuances. If the digital warfare is working, it could not hit the goal both.”
In preparation for the Ukrainians’ counteroffensive, the Russians concentrated extra of their digital warfare techniques within the Zaporizhzhia area, Pasha mentioned. It’s made him yearn for a change of surroundings.
“We preferred working within the Donetsk area higher,” Pasha advised Oleh. “There are extra targets there. There’s extra energetic work there, and there’s much less digital warfare. … This space is probably the most fortified. And they’re merely in a dead-end protection.”
“Then let’s work right here for the final day, after which I will give an order, you may be transferred there,” Oleh advised him.
“No downside,” Pasha mentioned. “We want outcomes — to destroy the enemy.”
An Alpha sniper group close to the jap metropolis Bakhmut mentioned the Russians are dug into their defenses there, too, making it tough to search out targets. The Russians “enter their positions within the morning and don’t go away the dugout till night time,” mentioned Felix, one in every of Alpha’s snipers.
His unit hasn’t had conventional sniper work since early Might, he mentioned, specializing in reconnaissance within the meantime.
There have been extra alternatives final yr, he mentioned. A yr in the past, when the western financial institution of the Kherson area was nonetheless occupied, Felix and two others from his sniper unit obtained intelligence from locals in an occupied village a few Russian navy commander. They studied the place cows walked via the fields, marking which areas appeared to not be mine. Then at night time, the group crossed the Inhulets River by foot, quietly getting into enemy-held territory and planting MON-90 mines on the street close to his automotive earlier than retreating, he mentioned.
“He stood out due to his car,” Felix mentioned. “Since he was the boss, the automotive needed to be extra lovely and so forth.”
The group then waited for the precise alternative earlier than remotely detonating the explosives. “After he was neutralized, that they had an enormous panic. They had been a bit depressed,” Felix mentioned with amusing.
He lamented that the identical form of mission wouldn’t be potential now as a result of the Russians have extra intensely mined every part forward of their outposts. “It’s a bit extra of a bet,” Felix mentioned.