KYIV — The darkened room on the outskirts of Kyiv could easily be mistaken for an indie-budget film studio. Three large projector screens provide the only source of light, illuminating the six or seven soldiers, all in uniform, watching as Volodymyr Dehtyarov fires an NLAW antitank missile launcher at the wall. Speakers blast the loud firing sound of this signature weapon in Ukraine’s mobile defense arsenal. On one of the projectors, the digital image of the rocket whistles through a verdant steppe, hitting its target, an accurately re-created version of a Russian tank.
The NLAW is real but spent, one of thousands of its kind of advanced antitank guided missiles (ATGMs) sent to Ukraine before and after Feb. 24, when the Russians invaded. The platform has been outfitted with an infrared sensor at the end of the tube — basically, the same technology used in the 1980s Nintendo classic “Duck Hunt” video game — to simulate the flight path of a real missile, with the ballistics faithfully replicated by custom-written software.
On one of the screens, users can select which weapon they want to train with; on another, they can select from a variety of targets. All the Russian vehicles modeled in the program have the now notorious “Z” invasion marking, which apparently makes a good target to aim at, according to one of the soldiers manning the range. The visuals are just below what you’d expect from a last-generation PlayStation title. All in all, it feels like an elaborate computer game, albeit one whose hand-eye coordination will be immediately used to kill enemies.
“We’ve had friends asking if they can come and have a go,” Dehtyarov, a soldier and press spokesman in Ukraine’s Territorial Defense Forces (TDF), tells Yahoo News. “But I’ve said, ‘No, you have to enlist first!’”
During the opening months of the war, large numbers of hastily armed and mobilized Ukrainian civilians joined the ranks of the TDF, an emergency home guard. These citizen soldiers were given only a couple of days of training before being deployed in positions in their home regions to act as the last line of defense against an invading Russian army.
They did a lot more than many expected.
At the Battle of Voznesensk, in early March, a group of TDF volunteers and professional soldiers together routed an advancing Russian column of around 400 men and 43 vehicles, successfully defending the strategic southern Ukrainian city.
Since the siege of Kyiv was lifted in April, the TDF have been consolidating their forces — and their ammunition, which has been severely drained by five months of constant war. Western partner nations have been ramping up production of the types of man-portable weapons that proved so effective at blunting the spear of the Russian advance thus far. Both Lockheed Martin and Raytheon have been awarded contracts by the U.S. government to increase production of Javelins, another popular Ukraine-wielded ATGM, and Stinger antiaircraft missiles, respectively.
The TDF’s role as a branch of the Ukrainian Armed Forces is still largely a defensive one, affording the regular army opportunities to mount offensive operations. Such an operation is said to be forthcoming in Kherson, a strategically and economically vital port city in southern Ukraine and the first large population to fall to the Russians.
“The thing about TDF is that we have lots of specialists with extensive industry experience yet no military background,” Dehtyarov says. “That’s why we can have recruits doing things which normally in the army would be done by higher ranks. For instance, the logistics unit is coordinated by the CEO and co-owner of a big transport and logistics company whose rank is lower than it would be in the regular army.”
With an elaborate tattoo sleeve of abstract shapes on his left arm, Dehtyarov, 42, slightly betrays his civilian background. He’s also a CEO. Before the war he ran Newsfront Communications Agency, a Ukrainian PR company, and now, in convenient lock-and-key fashion, Dehtyarov is assigned to the TDF’s Public Affairs Unit in Kyiv.
The TDF’s success at inspiring recruitment has led to one of their biggest challenges. There are now tens of thousands of volunteers who need additional military training in order to maximize their military potential. “We’ve had over 100,000 recruits join up since the start of the war,” Dehtyarov says. “Many of them had no previous military experience.”
To conserve their dwindling stockpile of ammunition they set up this virtual shooting range, and many more like it are being rolled out across the country. The hope is not only to be economical with foreign security assistance, but also to improve marksmanship with limitless exercises.
Whereas a soldier in the American or British militaries would get a chance to fire live rounds from an NLAW or a Javelin at a target on a training range, the cost and scarcity of these weapons means this is not an option for Ukraine. Currently, TDF recruits who train with a Soviet-era antitank weapon, such as an RPG-7, typically get two shots to perfect their aim. The first time they fire a Javelin or an NLAW is on the battlefield.
But with the virtual range, the TDF can train their soldiers for next to nothing.
“Facing an enemy tank for the first time is obviously an extremely stressful situation,” Dehtyarov says. “You ideally want to have trained to the extent you don’t have to think and your muscle memory takes over.” He explained to Yahoo News how he had run through basic drills with his fighters over and over with their AK-74 assault rifles until it became almost second nature. “But you can’t do that with an NLAW.”
Another added value of the virtual shooting range is its versatility. Soldiers can be instructed on how to aim and fire “everything,” as Dehtyarov puts it: AK-74 assault rifles, RPK light machine guns, Javelins, NLAWs and even larger, multicrew weapons such as the SPG-9 recoilless rifle.
The military philosophy of universal capability is something Ukrainians have adopted from the West, where members of an infantry squad would have a familiarity with the weapons used by their squad mates.
The plan is to outfit each one of the 32 TDF brigades with one of these training centers. So far they’ve secured funding for around six of these virtual ranges. “Some donors might not be comfortable with the idea of funding lethal aid,” Dehtyarov says, “but they’re happy to pay towards funding one of our new training centers.”
The NLAW is manufactured in the United Kingdom, one of the top arms suppliers to Kyiv. There is a painted portrait of British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on the wall of the shooting range, looking over the soldiers as they train.
“We got it the day he resigned,” one of the soldiers says, somewhat forlornly. “He’s still very popular in Ukraine.”