Ukrainian Arms Dealer’s Experience Shopping At Special Ops Trade Show In The U.S.

A Ukrainian arms dealer told us what it’s like trying to procure weapons from U.S. companies for his country’s fight against Russia.

byHoward Altman|
SOF WEEK Tampa Ukraine arms
Howard Altman


Sitting at a small round table in the middle of the showroom floor at the SOFWeek special operations conference in Tampa last week, the representative of a Ukrainian company seeking weapons for his nation’s military sat down with The War Zone to talk about what Ukraine needs most.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, “Igor” talked about drones, optics, the challenges of developing a logistics chain for the wide array of armor donated to Ukraine and the frustrations of dealing with bureaucracy that can delay the fielding of equipment for months.

Some of the questions and answers have been slightly edited for brevity and clarity.

Q: What brings you here?

A: So, before I never visited the [Special Operations Forces conference], but this year, I know the Global SOF Foundation (GSOF) that organized the exhibition. I'm very familiar with the GSOF community. And that's why I want to come and see how everything's organized.

Q: What does your company do?

A: We provide some equipment to our [Defense Ministry] MoD, special operations forces, security services, and other different parts who are fighting against Russian aggression. Because under Ukrainian legislation, not all parts of the MoD have their own rights to procure by themselves. So sometimes they need some company in the middle.

And now, the import legislation in Ukraine became very, let's say opened. And after that, you could easily receive some necessary papers, which allow you to make an import. Export is a totally different story and more complicated. But if you're talking about imports, now, I'm thinking about maybe 60 to 100 Ukrainian companies could do some international trading and bring some necessary equipment to Ukraine. 

Q: So you're basically serving as a front person to bring Ukraine weapons and other systems that you need?

A: Yes. You're right. So I'm trying to find something which is quite interesting. Then we help U.S. companies to organize some demo because if you bring something new, the first question from our military guy is like 'okay, I like it. But bring it here in Ukraine and I will test it.' Why is this necessary? Because you know, in Ukraine now it's a very hard electronic warfare situation. Russians are great at jamming GPS, radio signal, everything. So sometimes you have no LTE [long-term evolution or broadband communications network], no GPS, no radio communication systems, or nothing.

And this is why the equipment - if you're talking for example, about drones - needs to be tested in the real battlefield where it goes to the bottom line and we have some place where we could switch off, switch on some Russian electronic warfare equipment which we have in our hands and test it but we could not make it outside of Ukraine. So that's why we asked all producers to bring such equipment to Ukraine make some tests and then we could send this equipment back. It's up to the producer.

Q: What kind of equipment are the Russians using to jam your equipment?

A: They have a lot and to be honest, they study very well. So they have an understanding of the waveform of radio waves and some other characteristics of this. I'm not a very big specialist on electronic warfare, but I know how it generally works. So they teach from time to time which signals they need to jam because you could jam everything but it's just for low distance. If you want to jam something special you need to be very accurate with this frequency rate, this waveform and everything.

So for example, they know for sure the Harris [radio] waveform and it's very dangerous for us because if they could identify the Harris waveform, Harris radio stations, and arrays - if they know the location, they could immediately hit this place.

Q: Because not only can they jam but they can detect it, and then they can hit the spot. And they know that.

A: For example, if we're talking about drone operators, yes. So if you will define where is the base station located, you could hit the operator.

Q: Is there a big problem of Ukrainian drone operators being attacked because the Russians have picked up their frequencies?

A: I have no statistics, but understand how this works. It's why I think it's happened. Because now we use a lot of drones and it's some information which was in some open sources, the average time for DJI Mavic on the battlefield, it's like three to five days. So what this means is we lose a lot of drones and we need to replace it... It's now not like something unusual, we use it and we lose it and we need to be all the time replacing different types of drones. Of course, if the drone is better and flies higher and it's more protected from jamming, its lifetime could be longer but you never know.

If you want to ask questions about what we need...

A: Yes

Q: So we need a lot of different types of drones because we now operate with FPV [First Person Video] drones, with Mavic drones and also with all other types of drones for ISR [information, surveillance, reconnaissance] for sometimes for some civilians, [trying to understand] where's the enemy located? And not just in an optic way, but in radio way because we could also scan some frequency and understand where this enemy is located.

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So we need different types of drones and also we need a lot of kamikaze drones because drones [are cheaper to operate than rockets] which we don’t have. We use kamikaze drones to penetrate some special objects, like for example, an S-300 [air defense] complex etc. etc. So for this reason we use such kamikaze drones because the price of this equipment that would be destroyed, compared to the price of drones, it's less than if you use the rockets. Rockets are quite expensive. Send a kamikaze drone? It could have accuracy like a rocket but cheaper.

The Spike family of loitering munitions, made by Rafael Advanced Defense Systems, on display last week at SOFWeek in Tampa. (Howard Altman photo)

Q: Which kamikaze drones are you using?

A: All these commercially available on the market. Drones from Polish producers. Drones from U.S. producers. German ones as I remember. So every single one that is available. So of course we try to make something inside Ukraine and for this reason Ukrainian producers bought a lot of components on the market and then make some drones and put some explosive parts inside and sent it to [the Russians.]

Q: What have you seen at SOFWeek that you'd like to take back to Ukraine?

A: So we could talk about different producers from here because, you know, when you come to a producer and ask him, is it possible to buy tomorrow, usually they say no. And this is a big problem. You could just go to AeroVironment and ask them how many Switchblades could they produce and send to Ukraine? And the answer is just let's say honestly what we have right now. Boeing? They maybe have some ISR drones in stock, let's check. Anduril? Everything is still testing and they have just demos. So if we're talking about kamikaze, which is here available in the market, in not-so-big numbers... we are ready to procure as much as the whole world could produce.

Q: Can you talk about your procurement budget, how much you have to spend?

A: It's better to read some official information, but I know its average budget for drones, which United24 declared in some media, it's about $1 billion.

Q: So basically you are working with a pool of about $1 billion to procure drones?

A: It's drones that we could buy from local producers, and try to find something which is available on the market, and which is most productive. Producers are interested to come to Ukraine, to test the equipment on the real battlefield to make it battle-proof. And then they could expect some orders from our government. And I think all over the world.

Q: Can you talk about any specific companies that are going to be coming to Ukraine to test their systems?

A:  Sorry, but better to get hold of them.

Q: Can you say how many companies are interested in coming to Ukraine to perform that testing?

A: So it's like three to five companies if you are talking about drones specifically from here.

Q: Were they surprised they would have to come to Ukraine to test their equipment?

A: They understand this. But sometimes it takes a lot of paperwork from both sides. Because bureaucracy in the U.S. and Ukraine, it's like, the same world. But sometimes it happens. People go for a test, the U.S. producer receives immediate feedback, then they come back, make the changes, and they are deployed again. So it's happened.

Q: Would you say you've been able to facilitate or speed up the process of bringing people over to Ukraine, to test their drones, by being here?

A: So when I'm here, I'm just explaining from our side, which options we have. How they could come to Ukraine, and which paper we need to fill out and depending on the type of drones, it’s going to be a little bit [of a] different story. But I explain to all producers interested in coming to Ukraine - it could happen with our help or someone else’s help. Sometimes it could be done just due to GTG [government-to-government] channel work. So I'm explaining the whole possibility and trying to speed up this process. Yes.

Q: Are you able to talk about any other systems or products that you're interested in here?

A: It's also optical systems. The biggest projects should come from government to government. So if you're talking about large-caliber howitzer ammunition, a company like [General Dynamics], it should come from the government level. I'm trying to bring something which is not so huge, right? But which is more real.

Let's say this is why I'm interested in some different optics systems - thermal vision, binoculars, some type of lighter munitions, electronic warfare systems, some for civilians for when we try to find where the enemy is in an electronic way, let's say...


So some equipment which allows us to find the enemy. It's like the main point because we could not cover all markets and bring every single thing. So if we can try to concentrate on a few niches in which we have good portfolios and on which our clients have requested such equipment.

Q: Have you reached any deals here?

A: I've not come to the exhibition to sign some deal. It's like, day-by-day work, because sometimes you start emailing, but finally, you need to meet in person and discuss in person how you should move on to the next step. Because, you know, for us, it's quite a big problem. The compliance procedure could make you crazy. And, for example, if real military guys say okay, can you please get this system to the Ukrainian battlefield tomorrow for testing, I say yes. Okay. And if your boss or whoever says yes, okay, we will do it. But three months passed, and nothing happened. Because you need to know we need [a non-disclosure agreement] some [memorandum of understanding], compliance and due diligence and etc., etc., etc. So before the process of providing goods for tests can start, it takes about three months, maybe four months. And the military asks me why I am so slow and I try to explain how it works. It takes time.

Q: What is your military asking you to find?

A: The drone guys, especially, asked to bring more drones. So it depends. With the radio guys, they will ask to bring some new equipment.

Q: What are the SSO (special operations forces) asking for?

A: Radio communication systems, optical systems, drones. Because, again, they also need armored vehicles. And a huge problem for the Ukrainian military will be like, we have a zoo of armored vehicles, wheeled and tracked. Doesn't matter which ones and now, we faced this problem of spare parts. Because before we use just this number of armored vehicles, which were used to operate, and we know for sure which spare parts were needed at which time. But now it's like a mess.

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Q: It must be a logistical nightmare to try to supply and maintain and service all these different vehicles from all these different countries.

A: Our military logistic forces are responsible for this. But now it's like a big zoo and you need from scratch to build a system to procure the right spare parts. And this is something which now happens and somehow we try to help them because you need to know English to speak to some producers or traders for this purpose. So it's a very complicated story.

Q: Are you involved in the procurement of spare parts as well?

A: We try to help to organize all logistic chains. Like volunteers, let's say, because I understand how important this is and military guys come to us and ask, 'please help because we don't understand how to make international contracts because they never faced this.' They usually contracted with Ukrainian producers but now they need to procure from abroad from the market. And for them, it's quite a big issue.

Q: What is the Ukrainian Defense Intelligence directorate (GUR) asking for?

A: Almost the same sort of things. They need the same equipment. They also use drones, electronics, rifles, ammunition, etc., etc. Yes, they are more flexible, because they sometimes procure something which is not in the service. Because our law allows them to procure just equipment that is in service in Ukraine. If they want to have something new for them, it's a big headache.

If you're talking about special operation forces, Defense Intelligence or security services, they have their own budget, and sometimes they are more flexible. For example, okay, I know this rifle, it's quite good. We need this. And they procure it through us or through some other company. They have more flexibility. And this is why they have the newest equipment.

Q: Can you talk about a specific weapon that has gone through this process?

A: I don’t want to.

Q: So how close would you say that you are to actually procuring something for Ukraine after your visit to SOFWeek?

A: So, if it's a company we just meet here for the first time, something could happen, but like a minimum of four months or five months, because it's usually like this. If it's not a first meeting, if it's a second or third meeting, it could be a little bit faster. But again, almost every single thing I find here new, I need to bring it for testing. So it takes a few months to organize all this procedure.

Q: How frustrating and concerning is that, as Ukraine is talking about counter-offensive, and it's also still defending against Russians in Bakhmut and elsewhere in the Donbas also being attacked by drones and missiles constantly. From your point of view, how concerning is that long lead time of getting things to the battlefield?

A: Of course, it's not good, but we try to bring it, but against your [U.S.] due diligence systems and sometimes some compliance systems, it's very long so and from my experience, the fastest contracts, which we have, were about one month and a half, but it was one year ago. Now, everything is back to the normal life. And the fastest contract now, it's like, three, four months. It's from the point to which we're signing contracts. So all pre-contract works already happened. We agreed on price, terms of delivery and everything. And usually, normal terms of delivery is like three months.

Q: So just to get to that point takes months?

A: Three to four months.

Q: Just to get to that point and another three to four months for delivery? So that’s a long lead time.

A: Yes.

Q: Can you talk about any of the systems that you've been able to procure that are now on the battlefield?

A: I don’t want to.

Q: Are you going to see any trials for weapons systems?

A: Yes, some suppressor from one producer.

Q: Anything else?

A: We are interested in all kamikaze drones available on the market, so let's see. But here and especially for example the UMEX [trade show] in UAE we are just finding a lot of prototypes which are not tested and not battle proof so this is the problem.

Q: So that’s not really helping.

A: Yes.

Q: So where else would you go to get some of this stuff?

A: We look at all markets, all different markets, all producers.

Q: Would you say it was helpful to be here at SOFWeek?

A: I think yes, but let’s see in a few months.

Q: Again, nothing you have seen here will show up on the battlefield at best for another six months, right?

A: Let's see. Yes, maybe longer.

Q: What kind of ammunition are you interested in?

A: All ammunition is a point of interest. We are interested in smaller ammunition. So what is happening is that we are now switching from ex-USSR standard or non-NATO standard. We now switch to NATO standard. Each day, we receive fewer requests for non-NATO standard ammunition and we receive more requests for NATO standard ammunition.

Q: So are you also looking to procure NATO standard small arms as well?

A: I am not a big specialist in ammunition and rifles etc. So I'm working like with numbers, names. I received the list. I asked some company for a quotation, receive it, send it to customers, that’s it.

Q: You are also working with the Ukrainian National Guard?

A: We are trying to.

Q: The Azov Battalion?

A: We actually provide for them some optical systems like night vision systems.

Q: Sniper optics?

A: Not for them, but yes we have.

Q: What about helicopters? The GUR has a Black Hawk helicopter.

A: So helicopters are also very interesting, but it's a very expensive toy you know, and now the main point of interest is ammunition. Then we could talk about helicopters and other aircraft, but I think it should be done on the government level. What we show to all the world is that we are ready to operate with NATO standard helicopters. Now our pilots use helicopters, it shows to the world that we are ready to receive such type of equipment because world leaders told us they are not ready. We could not sell it to them because they need to teach pilots some of the stuff, they prepare, etc., etc. But we try to show to the markets that we are ready.

Let's bring this equipment to us on some government level and see.

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