A Ukrainian soldier wearing a balaclava kneels on the ground in Kyiv with an RPG-7 grenade launcher, preparing to hit an armoured car just a few metres away. He delivers a shot, then immediately another, and then one more. A few moments later, he picks up a NLAW grenade launcher and fires again. In front of him, the vehicle explodes on a large screen.
It’s all part of a drill powered by an immersive combat simulator program called Strata22 developed by UARPA, a Ukrainian private defence and security technology company launched in 2014 in response to Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea. One of the men behind it is Bohdan Kupych, a 69-year-old Canadian born in Hamilton who describes himself as a “typical representative of post World War II Ukrainian diaspora.” His goal: Use Strata22 to train 100,000 troops to help them become better fighters on the front lines.
The tech entrepreneur has spent more than three decades in Ukraine implementing data and telecom projects. About 20 years ago, a venture he co-founded invested in UARPA.
“I never was looking at the defence industry as a business, I always was a tech person. … We got into this only because of the aggression of Russia, because of the war,” Mr. Kupych said while giving a tour of the Strata22 training facility.
He knows the outcome of such fighting. His parents, from Lviv and eastern Poland, endured captivity, displacement, forced labour in German camps and resettlement across Europe before immigrating to Canada. Mr. Kupych, who started his career in telecoms and technology, went to Ukraine after the Iron Curtain fell and Eastern European countries were demanding servers, computers and fibre optics for global network access.
Now, he’s focused on defensive technologies.
“It was hot here in February last year, rockets were falling a few blocks away,” he said, navigating the path to the “virtual” shooting range through a labyrinth of corridors fortified with sandbags. In a dark room, a group of about two dozen soldiers watched a demo video on how to shoot a grenade launcher.
Mr. Kupych estimates that the startup has trained 16,000 soldiers for free using the simulator since the war began in February, 2022. Since then, developers have adapted Strata22 to meet the changing needs of the Ukrainian military.
“The first problem we discovered at the start of the invasion – that newly mobilized troops lack weapons skills. So we built out a combat simulator to teach soldiers how to handle Kalashnikovs,” said Stefan Turskyy, the 48-year-old chief executive officer of Strata22.
Later, as more Western weapons arrived, soldiers started to ask for help learning how to use more advanced – and more expensive – equipment.
One shot from an old RPG-7 costs $540, according to Mr. Turskyy, while the price of a modern projectile can be upwards of $24,000. In traditional training, mobilized recruits are allowed to launch only a few grenades on a shooting range before being sent to the front lines.
“We’ve created a simulator for NLAW, Swedish AT4 and Stingers rockets … so soldiers can practice a few hundreds shots per session with a rehearsal of different shooting scenarios such as wind, hard terrain and moving targets,” Mr. Turskyy said, naming various anti-tank and surface-to-air weapons.
Further challenges – for troops and developers – arose when Russia intensified its rocket attacks on military infrastructure used for training soldiers: Traditional shooting ranges became targets.
In response, the company created Strata Compact. The portable plug-and-play simulator, which can fit in the trunk of the car, was designed to travel to soldiers’ hideouts. “It demands only a dark room, three simple actions to launch it and the access to the electricity before starting practising,” Mr. Turskyy said, pointing to a black box similar to those used for storing sound equipment.
To reach his target of training 100,000 troops, Mr. Kupych calculated that Strata22 needs to distribute a total of 40 simulators to the Ukrainian armed forces, at an approximate cost of $24,000 each. “We have cases when simulators were bought by charitable foundations and donated to the army,” he said.
One Ukranian soldier who has already completed the training is Serhii, who praised the program. “The tasks are very similar to real combat missions. … It is a good instrument to practise muscular memory and learn how the RPG’s scope works,” said the 28-year old, referring to rocket-propelled grenades. (The Globe and Mail is identifying the soldier by his first name only, as he is not authorized to speak to the media.)
Despite being in active service since 2013 and logging more than 240 shots (including confirmed hits) using real RPGs, Serhii believes the virtual platform has honed his accuracy in real-life battles against the Russians. He has served a few deployments near the city of Marinka, and now awaits his next to the Bakhmut area.
“The only difference from the real gun is that there’s no explosion sounds,” he said.
And that, Mr. Kupych explained, is by design. “We don’t want to traumatize soldiers here before sending them to war. … We want them to hit what they need where they need to.”