Local MIT grads rethink the front line in Ukraine
NORFOLK — Two former graduate school roommates at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who share Norfolk roots, have spent months working with a small international team to deliver medical aid and equipment to Ukraine, and now they are helping the Ukraine military modernize its Soviet-era battle tactics.
While many nonprofits and nongovernmental organization initiatives have contributed humanitarian aid to the war-ravaged country, the work of these two 35-year-olds has in addition focused on helping the defending forces to become more effective in the war against Russia on the front line.
Calling their tax-exempt 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization Zero Line, Evan Platt and Ian Miller have teamed up to provide drones, satellite phones, vehicles and first-aid kits, and sophisticated communications know-how and training to Ukrainian soldiers.
The name Zero Line stands for what Ukrainians call “the front of the front lines,” where the most people are killed and where Zero Line modernization techniques can save the most lives.
Miller spoke to a group of about 50 people on Saturday, Sept. 24, at the Hub in Norfolk. His partner Platt was in Kyiv, participating via Zoom, along with a former Ukrainian military drone pilot, Ivan Choopeek, who was in southern Ukraine for the call.
Platt has been in Ukraine since April, when Miller invited him to visit. Miller is about to go back.
Speaking of the way Ukrainians battle Russian forces, Platt said “it’s the Soviet-style strategy,” referring to World War II battleground tactics. “Emphasis on artillery, emphasis on digging trenches, pouring cement for hard points, throwing of mines on the zero line.
“That’s really slow,” he said. “Farmers with guns. Their heart is in it, but they’re not that well trained. Often they’re lawyers. A car mechanic.”
Platt and Choopeek explained how a system devised by the team implemented systemic change on the front line, using “horizontal communications” with drones, cellphones and Wi-Fi to carry out artillery strikes — instead of relying on a typical top-down and more time-consuming command chain on radios.
The use of drones is the first step, which provides pilots with information that, in turn, is supplied via an “ISTAR” pilot program to artillery operators who receive the coordinates of an enemy tank position, for example.
(ISTAR stands for “intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition, and reconnaissance.”)
The platform integrates satellite imagery, live video feeds, radio conversations and human intelligence to provide a “common operating picture” of opposing forces.
“This creates a better, more reliable communication and more accurate artillery shots,” Platt said. “Less armor is wasted in the process.”
“Ninety percent of reconnaissance on the front is done with drones,” Platt said, who explained that drone pilots now send information captured by the drones to artillery units using text messaging.
“The biggest problem is the communication,” said Choopeek, explaining that traditional chain-of-command approaches can take 5 or 10 minutes to get clearance to attack a known target, which may have moved from its location in that much time.
“Using cellphones and internet messaging is much faster,” he said. “The drone pilot can bring the information straight to the guy who makes the decision.”
Choopeek explained that a self-propelled howitzer operated by the Russians may have moved position in the minutes after its coordinates were first determined by a drone, but the ISTAR system can respond in 30 to 60 seconds, allowing the Ukrainians to fire up to three rounds at a target still in place.
Choopeek said his brigade, the 63rd, was considered among the worst before it started operating with ISTAR. Now it is considered one of the most successful.
“We hit almost zero targets before ISTAR,” he said. “We were trapped inside the chain of command.”
According to Zero Line, before Aug. 1 Brigade 63 (5,000 soldiers) in Mykolaiv was one of the most dysfunctional of the 10 brigades in southern Ukraine. Following its success, two other brigades have asked to join ISTAR’s pilot program.
Zero Line also works with the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense, active U.S. and NATO-allied special forces and Ukrainian technology companies.
Before the presentation started, Miller acknowledged the generous help of Norfolk resident Anne Garrels, a longtime foreign correspondent for National Public Radio, who started a Ukraine relief effort called www.assist-ukraine.org that has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for medical and humanitarian relief. Garrels died on Sept. 7.
For more information on Zero Line go to www.zero-line.org.
Andre Wlodar, who splits his time between Millerton and Manhattan, also has supported Ukraine since February with fundraising and by delivering essential supplies and traveling to Poland and Ukraine. Local Millerton residents and business owners, vendors and artists and community groups and nonprofits have contributed to his United for Ukraine campaign.
Wlodar planned to return to Lviv and Kyiv on Monday, Sept. 26.