“This is a technology war.” How Ukrainians from Kharkiv are creating SkifTech tactical simulators that save military lives
It was 2014. Annexation of Crimea. The war with Russia, at that time hesitantly called an anti-terrorist operation, was simmering in the Luhansk and Donetsk regions. Entrepreneurs from Kharkiv, who were developing a paintball club and producing equipment for Lazertag, were approached by acquaintances from a tank school: “Guys, you are good at organizing recreational battles, so can you run training for our cadets at your facility?”
“We didn’t know much about it back then. But it was 2014, and we realized that we needed to develop our defense industry. We agreed,”says Mikhailo Obod, co-founder of the Skiftech project, a company producing full-service training systems for the military.
The hardware and software developed by the Kharkiv company not only save the AFU tens of thousands of dollars in ammunition, which does not need to be used in training but — most importantly — it saves soldiers’ lives.
AIN.Capital shares how the company was created, how Skiftech systems compete with Western analogs, and how the business, with its own production line and staff, was moved from Kharkiv to western Ukraine while under fire.
Skiftech is the brand name under which advanced training systems for the military are manufactured. Skiftech tactical simulators make training as close to real combat as possible. They help to hone the fighters’ skills in training as if they were already gaining real-life combat experience.
Skiftech simulators increase battlefield survivability by 30 percent, according to military personnel who have already been trained using the Ukrainian equipment and are defending Ukraine today. Skiftech estimates that at least 30,000 troops have been trained on the simulators in the eight years of the company’s existence.
“In fact, it’s probably a lot more. It’s just the minimum number we’ve been able to confirm,” Obod clarified.
Skiftech is an ecosystem with software and hardware components. The hardware includes devices to be installed on military vehicles — weapons, equipment, ammunition — that collect data during training.
The data belongs to the software part. It can be analyzed with a tablet or computer. There is a video record of a training session played, and you can watch the actions of each soldier in specific conditions and identify gaps in their training.
“The main idea is to combine any possible tactical simulators in one system that can be used for all types of weapons,”says Skiftech co-founder Yurii Lavrenov.
“This includes individual soldier kits (to be carried by infantry), military equipment weapons systems (to be installed on tanks, armored personnel carriers, etc.), as well as systems for artillery, mortars, anti-aircraft weapons, and ATGMs.”
All information is synced with a battle map, an area, or a training ground. You can see how the soldiers were moving and the terrain they moved through, their fire, what and where they hit, and how quickly and accurately they regrouped. It is the most remarkable feature of the product.
The data is collected with the Orion system.
Obod named three components that make Skiftech systems useful in military training.
- Realism. The training is as close as possible to real combat because Skiftech uses replicas of weapons and vehicles with their branded devices to collect and analyze data. Thus, all the weight, dimensions, and technical characteristics are considered. This is how an actual battle is simulated.
- Security of all participants. There have never been any injuries during training related to the technology itself, Obod says.
- Cost. Simulators allow the Ukrainian Armed Forces to save on ammunition, which is in very short supply in Ukraine.
“One anti-tank guided missile costs $20,000-25,000 for a single shot. The value of our simulator is not much more, but trainees can use it 100, 200, or 500 times a day. Therefore, it substantially impacts training costs without compromising realism and effectiveness,” says Mykhailo.
The history of Skiftech
In 2005, Yurii Lavrenov founded the Forpost Paintball Club, which in 4 years grew to a park with 8 playgrounds. Today, due to the war, Forpost operates in a minimal mode. But before the full-scale invasion, realistic army-to-army battles were staged here, with up to 400 players participating simultaneously.
Later, Yurii was joined by his partner Mykhailo Obod, with whom they launched a new service, Lasertag, in 2011. At first, we just organized tournaments, then began to advise other paintball clubs on implementing Lasertag technology at their sites. Eventually, we developed our own software, which grew popular among game clubs. This is how the Netronic business line was born.
One day, a friend from the Tank Troops Academy, where Obod had studied at the military department as a student, contacted him. Mykhailo remembered how bad his training had been, very far from actual combat conditions.
“We ran out of the tank against an imaginary enemy and laid down on the command ‘you’re dead’ — just because the commander said so,” Obod recalls.
The advantage of Skiftech’s systems is that the soldiers train against a real, skilled, intelligent enemy, considering the terrain, weapon features, etc. At the end of the training, the commander can analyze the actions of each soldier, go through mistakes, and make conclusions about their lack of skills.
The prototype simulator has served tank troops for seven years already
Skiftech engineers assembled the first prototype relatively quickly. Of course, such equipment and software have long existed and have been actively used in the armies of various countries. However, while Western manufacturers have been working on their projects for years, a team from Kharkiv managed to get it within a single year.
The first version of the Skiftech simulator could have been better for sure, but it did its job.
“Seven years later, we visited the tank school, and it was still in operation. Since then, we have improved our simulators many times, and today this is probably the 12th version. In total, we created four generations of equipment,” says Mykhailo.
The development involved consultants who had used similar systems abroad or supplied them to Ukraine 10-20 years ago when there was no domestic production.
We didn’t raise any outside investment — we managed to do it with our own money. According to rough estimates, the partners reinvested $800,000 in the development of systems for Lasertag, while Skiftech required 2-3 times more money. Most of the income earned from paintball and Lasertag was spent on Skiftech, Mykhailo says.
Who are the users?
Skiftech provides the application and hardware for training systems as a package or separately. The cost of each shipment can vary greatly depending on the configuration.
In total, more than 3,500 training simulators, kits for military personnel and equipment, and explosive device simulators have been produced since the company’s inception.
The systems are purchased primarily for the AFU through government procedures.
“Our simulators are used by the Armed Forces of Ukraine, Special Operations Forces, State Border Troops, Azov Special Forces, National Guard of Ukraine, Security Service of Ukraine, and other military formations. And also military universities, academies, the same Institute of Tank Troops, which was the first customer,” says Yurii.
We took the system to military units and firing ranges to demonstrate its usefulness and receive feedback. After the start of a full-scale war, a lot of ready-made equipment was distributed for free to Territorial Defense units.
“We have recently given the system for free to a military firing range in the Chernivtsi region,” Mykhailo said.
The war did not affect the number of orders
The company stopped receiving orders in the first months and resumed them only in April. According to Yurii, the company ships equipment following pre-war delivery plans, but the partners do not see a significant increase in the orders number.
What has really increased is the understanding of how to use such simulators and their necessity. The military is asking Skiftech to add new types of weapons that allies give to Ukraine. Therefore, the company is now developing simulators for Javelin, NLAW, and Stinger.
“The war that is going on now is the technology war. Before the full-scale war in Ukraine, people did not understand the importance of such training. Now generals and ordinary servicemen who train on our systems send us weekly feedback, telling us about their impressions and what features they need. Sometimes they write directly to us on Facebook,” Mykhailo says.
Why take the Kharkiv product and not the foreign one?
Yurii and Mykhailo assured that their project differs greatly from what American and European manufacturers offer. The difference is obvious and quite enormous — the real war experience. We also work individually, which allows us to save the most precious thing — a soldier’s life.
Skiftech simulators can be adapted to different weapons, terrain, and combat tactics, so they are primarily relevant to Ukrainians in the ongoing war. The development of each next version was based on actual combat experience gained since 2014 when Russia conducted its first hybrid military invasion of Ukraine. The competing manufacturers’ systems, mainly used in NATO countries, cannot have been proven in combat as our system did.
“During the development of the ATGM simulator, we concentrated on feedback from fired with the ATGM at war,” Mykhailo said.
The system from the Kharkiv team is also more sophisticated.
“If we are talking about our global competitors — Americans, Swedes, Swiss, Germans — most of their developments were done in the 2000s. They are still using technologies that used to be relevant at that time, while we are using technologies that have become already available just recently. That’s why we can do things cheaper, more efficiently, and better, but, most importantly, we can do them for a specific request. For example, if a certain type of unit orders a simulator, we customize it for them as they ask, which is hardly imaginable in the case of large corporations,” Obod explained.
Moving the production from Kharkiv in the midst of war
Skif simulators were designed and assembled from scratch in Kharkiv. The R&D office was located there, all the parts were made there, and the large assembly line that the partners brought from western Ukraine remains there as well. How to evacuate all this from the city that is under terrible shelling every day without losing people, orders, or stopping business?
“That morning, we woke up to the explosions and saw that a full-scale invasion was beginning. And in four hours, we had several options for where to move,” Yurii recalls.
He called all his contacts from the west of the country with the request to find a place to move the production line to. The task was non-trivial. It was even more challenging find space to house 100+ employees with their families in a city where almost all of the rental housing was booked, so that work wouldn’t stop.
“This was important because we had signed orders for Lazertag equipment that we wouldn’t have been able to ship otherwise,” Mykhailo explains.
The move itself took a month. Every week 1 or 2 cars with Skiftech and Netronic equipment went to the west of the country. There were enough problems with removing equipment from Kharkiv. For example, molds worth several hundred dollars each, used for molding plastics, were blocked in the warehouses of a contracting company that closed its warehouses. It was not easy to make new ones, and because of the lack of mold, production could stop for six months. But the partners could not let that happen.
Meanwhile, in Kharkiv, the personnel continued to go to work under shelling. According to Yurii, people were picked up all over the city and taken to the store in cars. Although the facilities were on the basement floor, which allowed for more or less protection from shelling, the boiler room heating had to be put out so the Russians wouldn’t see us.
“Everyone was overwhelmed, and very often, attention was so scattered that it was difficult to even just say anything. People were working and there were explosions a kilometer away. A rocket hit the place 300 meters from our office, and we had our windows shattered. So we found apartments in the west of Ukraine and relocated all the employees, equipment, tools, components — everything that concerned production,” says Yurii.
“We moved the company in such a way that production did not stop. When we had an incomplete order received in February, we left it in Kharkiv, where it was completed by the employees who decided to stay. It was difficult for them to be at home in March and April, and it was important for us to keep them busy. And new orders were already being collected in the west of the country,” Mykhailo explains.
At the moment when the unfinished production in Kharkiv was coming to an end, there was already a site in the west (the exact name of the city has not been disclosed for security reasons) for people to come and just start working.
Now the company has two production lines, one in the west of the country and another — in Kharkiv. Over 15 percent of the team stayed in their hometown for various reasons and now work with the machining center, which Yurii and Mykhailo decided not to move. All of the equipment for this center was purchased in western Ukraine, transported to Kharkiv, and put into operation on January 28, 2022 — one month before the full-scale war began.
“That’s only 3 percent of all production. The vast majority of employees working from home are engineers, marketing specialists, and designers,” the partners explain.