Ukraine’s elite Alpha division makes use of know-how to struggle Russian forces Lalrp

One of many fight items of the SBU’s Particular Operations Middle “Alpha” combating on the Jap Entrance of Ukraine on June 20. 2023. (Sasha Maslov/For The Washington Submit)

ZAPORIZHZHIA REGION, Ukraine — A few of Ukraine’s most elite particular forces are actually working barely again from the entrance line — with virtual-reality glasses that give a drone’s-eye view.

Final 12 months, there have been alternatives to creep into Russian-occupied territory at night time to take out enemy targets. Now, with huge minefields and different fortified Russian defenses stalling Ukraine’s sweeping counteroffensive, a UAV armed with explosives does that in daylight as a substitute.

A Ukrainian particular forces group in July 2023 manually directed a drone to hit a cluster of antennas affixed to a tower in a city occupied by Russian troops. (Video: Alpha Unit)

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, made from Styrofoam-like materials and costing $1,500, crashed into one of many antennas, detonating on contact. With the Russians’ jamming means instantly 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 struggle to expel the Russian occupiers. However had the drone not disabled one of many antennas first, the HIMARS rocket possible 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 not too long ago 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 conflict — fought largely 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 usually earlier within the battle. Now, the combating is basically achieved with know-how, together with a big selection of self-detonating drones, whereas the expert troopers direct them from a protected distance — a preferable risk-to-reward ratio than sneaking behind Russian traces.

“What’s the drawback with going behind enemy traces? Whole mining,” stated 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 unimaginable to go someplace secretly. It’s a must to use some type 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 all the things from firing an antitank missile to working a cellular air-defense system. Their snipers are thought to be one of the best in Ukraine. However all have turned their focus to drones recently as their targets turned tougher to succeed in.

The struggles of the Alpha fighters illustrate the steep challenges the Ukrainian navy now faces at each degree — 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 giant 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 extensive fields of the southern Zaporizhzhia area. However it’s nonetheless exhausting to get near the Russians. Just lately, 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 stated.

“And with our assets, the lack of 14 folks is a large loss for us,” Oleh stated. “Sure, the enemy additionally suffers losses. However once more, are our losses acceptable in these circumstances and are they justified? I can not use these 14 folks in different operations within the close to future.”

“The issues that could possibly be achieved a 12 months and a half in the past or a 12 months in the past, which had been comparatively protected and had been achieved, now we have to assess the appropriateness,” he added.

Ukraine’s most important inside safety service, the SBU, created its Alpha division in 1994 with a give attention to counterterrorism operations. That work stays, however extra has been added amid conflict.

The pinnacle of the SBU, Vasyl Maliuk, not too long ago confirmed that its specialists had been answerable for attacking the Crimean Bridge final 12 months, a dramatic strike that briefly disrupted a key Russian provide route. The service has additionally been behind current 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 licensed to debate the matter publicly.

When the Russians had been attempting to seize of Kyiv, Alpha’s most important activity was defending the federal government and its leaders, together with President Volodymyr Zelensky, Oleh stated. However since final 12 months, he has been primarily based out of 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, you need to cross a health check, a polygraph and a psychological examination. Efforts to widen recruiting through the conflict to type a separate assault unit yielded simply 80 new members, Oleh stated.

Like different particular forces, Alpha groups can typically have the identical capabilities as common navy brigades, reminiscent of working a howitzer. However their assignments are sometimes achieved in small teams — supposed to inflict excessive enemy losses utilizing fewer assets.

The whole Alpha division has only one artillery gun, a 105mm British L119 that’s at the moment within the Zaporizhzhia area, utilized by a gaggle 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. Usually the combating, they stated, is going down within the skinny tree traces that separate every area. 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 stated.

Just lately, they stated, a gaggle of troopers approached a Russian trench line they thought was deserted. As they began to stroll by way of 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,” stated 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.”

Somewhat than contending with minefields, the place Alpha has achieved best success is with loitering munitions, which vary in measurement and price. The three-man group that destroyed the antenna tower focuses on targets associated to Russians’ jamming means and communication infrastructure.

A second group working within the Zaporizhzhia area not too long ago used a RAM II self-detonating drone made in Ukraine, which seems like a small grey aircraft with a propeller within the again and may fly as much as 25 miles.

The Alpha division alone this 12 months has broken or destroyed greater than 322 tanks and armored autos, 48 artillery programs and 65 particular gear objects, together with digital warfare, stated Oleh, the deputy director.

However “now it’s tougher,” stated Pasha, who heads the Alpha unit launching the RAM II drones.

Since final 12 months, 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. Which means “we fly by landmarks, we don’t have GPS right here in any respect,” Pasha stated. And infrequently, 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 concentrating on the digital warfare programs themselves.

“We’ve got very exact means,” Pasha stated. “The navy prioritizes giving us a goal to hit, and solely then, if we are able to’t hit it, they switch it to HIMARS or artillery — as a result of artillery might not hit in any respect, and HIMARS additionally has nuances. If the digital warfare is working, it might not hit the goal both.”

In preparation for the Ukrainians’ counteroffensive, the Russians concentrated extra of their digital warfare programs within the Zaporizhzhia area, Pasha stated. It’s made him yearn for a change of surroundings.

“We favored working within the Donetsk area higher,” Pasha informed Oleh. “There are extra targets there. There’s extra lively work there, and there may be much less digital warfare. … This space is essentially 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 informed him.

“No drawback,” Pasha stated. “We want outcomes — to destroy the enemy.”

An Alpha sniper group close to the jap metropolis Bakhmut stated 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,” stated Felix, one among Alpha’s snipers.

His unit hasn’t had conventional sniper work since early Might, he stated, specializing in reconnaissance within the meantime.

There have been extra alternatives final 12 months, he stated. A 12 months 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 couple of Russian navy commander. They studied the place cows walked by way of the fields, marking which areas appeared to not be mine. Then at night time, the group crossed the Inhulets River by foot, quietly coming into enemy-held territory and planting MON-90 mines on the highway close to his automotive earlier than retreating, he stated.

“He stood out due to his automobile,” Felix stated. “Since he was the boss, the automotive needed to be extra lovely and so forth.”

The group then waited for the suitable alternative earlier than remotely detonating the explosives. “After he was neutralized, they’d an enormous panic. They had been a bit depressed,” Felix stated with amusing.

He lamented that the identical type of mission wouldn’t be doable now as a result of the Russians have extra intensely mined all the things forward of their outposts. “It’s a bit extra of a bet,” Felix stated.