David Axe


Oct 18, 2022

It’s not for no reason the Russian military is using Iranian-made, explosives-laden drones to bombard Ukrainian cities. The Russian air force’s manned warplanes can’t do it. At least not without extreme risk to themselves.

To understand why, you have to understand one very special piece of software called “Kropyva.” That means “nettle” in Ukrainian.

Eight months into Russia’s wider war on Ukraine, the Russians still haven’t suppressed Ukraine’s air defenses. Indeed, the Ukrainian air-defense network, if anything, is getting stronger as more Western-made systems arrive.

But even with these ex-German Gepard mobile guns and American-made National Advanced Surface-to-Air Missile System launchers, the Ukrainian air-defense system still mostly is Soviet in design.

The Ukrainian army and air force inherited hundreds of guns, surface-to-air launchers and radars when the Soviet Union collapsed back in 1991. They comprise the bulk of Ukraine’s air defenses, and they’re old.

But the Ukrainians have improved them. Kropyva might be the most important addition. Videos that circulated online this month depict the Ukrainian crews of Osa air-defense vehicles using Android tablets running the Kropyva software to track Russian warplanes.

Kropyva is a boot-strap version of the American Blue Force Tracker system. Like BFT, Kropyva displays a digital map. On the map, the user can see the locations of friends and enemy troops. Something akin to a strategy game, but deadly real.

Where BFT is a boutique government system that cost U.S. taxpayers tens of billions of dollars to develop and deploy, Kropyva is the product of a scrappy nonprofit, Army SOS, which in addition to Kropyva has developed drones and intelligence-gathering systems for the Ukrainian armed forces. “Governments are often slow, and today every hour can make a difference,” SOS states on its website. “Our NGO can act right here, right now.”

Kropyva is ingenious in its design. Running on any Android tablet, it connects users from across the Ukrainian armed forces, building a single network with both push and pull functions. Users can input the locations of enemy forces—strongpoints, tanks, aircraft. The output, for every user, is a comprehensive, top-down view of the battlefield combining intel from lots of overlapping sources.

Army SOS originally intended Kropyva to aid artillery units. “Kropyva functions as a form of Uber for artillery and has made it possible to drastically increase its reaction time while reducing its vulnerability,” wrote Adrien Fontanellaz, an independent expert.

“The average time required to deploy a howitzer battery has been reduced by a factor of five—to three minutes,” Fontanellaz added. “The time required to engage an unplanned target by a factor of three, to one minute; while the time required to open counterbattery fire has been divided by 10, down to 30 seconds.”

Air-defense batteries benefit in the same way. While they still use radars to spot and track Russian planes, they now can supplement the radar picture with Kropyva. The latter might not be as accurate. And it can’t actually direct a command-guidance missile. But it can alert crews to incoming enemy aircraft—and help to confirm radar tracks.

Plus, Kropyva is very user friendly. It looks and functions like any number of popular apps. Air-defense units using Kropyva have better situational awareness. That makes them more lethal, of course—but it also makes them harder to suppress, as crews can see an attack coming.

Kropyva’s proliferation helps to explain why Ukrainian air defenses, despite their age, are winning the battle for Ukraine’s skies.