“At war, you need everything, and even that would not be enough.” Interview with Oleksandr Yabchanka, the commander of the Honor company of the Da Vinci Wolves battalion

About a technological handicap over Russians, the importance of EW/SIGINT at the frontline, and horizontal innovations in the Ukrainian military was the conversation between AIN.Capital and Oleksandr Yabchanka, the Commander of the Honor Company of the volunteer Da Vinci Wolves Battalion since March 2024, in which he shared his thoughts and observations regarding the current state of war and the concept of a “battalion of the future.”

Support a joint fundraising campaign of AIN.UA, KOLO, and SHIELDS for night vision and attacking equipment for the Da Vinci Wolves battalion.

Oleksandr Yabchanka lying on the ground in full military equipment
All photos in the interview were provided by Oleksandr Yabchanka

Medical Aid and Rehabilitation

Dear Oleksandr, I would like to start our conversation with things that save the lives of Ukrainian warriors. You used to work in different health positions before the war, and now, your battalion has its own health service unit called Ulf. What is the situation with medical equipment and aid at the frontline and rehabilitation after injuries?

There are universal rules for all units, and saving lives and the health of injured soldiers depends on how well people follow these rules.

But first, let’s go back a bit and speak about planning. We plan any combat action and activity, including training, by considering the medical aid component. We plan the logistics, unit interaction, evacuation routes, etc. These elements are connected. You can even say that evacuation equals logistics and vice versa. In reality, however, it will always go differently despite even the most sophisticated planning. And if you have no plan at all, the worst scenario will happen.

Second, the individual training of each soldier is vital. The better you are equipped, the better your people are trained to use available means, and the more likely your rescuing and lifesaving measures will be effective.

Based on your observations, how well are the future combatants taught tactical medicine, using the MARCH algorithm, and first aid in a boot camp? Would you recommend taking extra measures and doing another private tacmed course before beginning military service?

There is never too much training. The more different courses you take, the easier the next training, the better cohesion in the boot camp and by performing combat tasks.

If you have polished your skills to almost automatic—both in defense and attack and if injured—you will do it without even thinking about it.

So, when you have polished your skills to automatic actions, you will follow the protocol and act automatically in a stressful and dangerous situation. If the protocol is not well tested yet, under stress pressure, you do anything but the things required in a specific case.

Everyone can be scared after getting wounded and sometimes literally fighting for their life. And fear is what accompanies all your actions. Strictly following the protocol helps you act right, even under pressure.

I know that you were doing rehabilitation after an injury. Can you briefly describe, as a former healthcare specialist, plus and contras of the injured soldier rehabilitation?

Yes, my rehab happened with the help of specialists at the Unbroken Center on the base of the Lviv First Medical Community. They set me on my feet.

Getting wounded, receiving first aid, and being evacuated is one story. The more efficient it is, the more chances to survive and heal.

Of course, the treatment is also important: the quality of surgery and then external fixation, the speed of wound healing, and the kind of treatment you get.

In my case, the rehabilitation began on the fifth day after the surgery when I still had an Ilizarov apparatus on me. In the hospital, a personal physical therapist first gave me advice on how to maintain muscles to avoid atrophy. For example, what would be a problem if one of your joints becomes dysfunctional? It gets atrophied. And restoring its functionality can be difficult or sometimes even impossible.

So, in my case, it was theoretically possible. After the surgery, surgeons told me that the basic functions could be restored at least within a year. But thanks to the rehabilitation, I participated in cross-country running after only eight months. And now, I am preparing to visit some front edges.

In the Unbroken Center, I did exercise the whole day. At nine o’clock, I came to the gym, did physical therapy until lunch, and then I had psychotherapy at the local mental health center until six o’clock.

As a result, I could run a short distance after four months after the start of my rehab. By doing this, of great importance is the patient’s attitude that rehabilitation is a job you must do so carefully as you did your job on the battlefield.

In my opinion, such medical centers and the Unbroken must be in all big cities. Because unfortunately, there are already many patients for them, and there will be many more.

Oleksandr Yabchanka (second from the left in the bottom row) with his comrades

EW/SIGINT and a Cossack Agreement in Infantry

Speaking about the materiel, equipment, and means to destroy enemies, what is the most desired at the front? EW and SIGINT? Munition?

At war, you need everything, and even that would be not enough. It sounds like a metaphor, but it also makes sense.

Let’s take as an example the Honor Company, which is a part of the Da Vinci Wolves separate battalion. First, we must provide soldiers with all the basics—from socks to individual protection. Most of it is provided by the state. Of course, when our friends offer something better, for example, tactical socks for our guys so that their legs don’t sweat too much, I would never say no.

By the way, the bulletproof vests and helmets provided by the state have a pretty decent quality. However, we always need earmuffs. They must be reliable, protect against concussions, and not interfere with communication on the battlefield at the same time. Thanks to our partners, all our guys have at least one set of earmuffs now. The comms is a different story because coordination of actions within combat and during evacuation relies on them.

In order to simplify the answer, let’s restrain the war to two key objectives: to see and destroy the enemy and not to be seen and destroyed by them. These two objectives demand us to be always a step forward.

Let’s begin with safety. We must do our best to prevent the enemies from seeing us and being able to hit us. For this, we must shut down their “eyes” represented by drones. What is efficient in preventing them from flying? It is the means of electronic warfare and signals intelligence (EW and SIGINT). It’s expensive equipment, and the government can cover only part of the costs. Thus, we have to look for extra resources to purchase more of it. Fortunately, we got lucky in this context, particularly with EW.

Another essential safety component is making targeting our positions impossible for the enemy, for example, by using FPV drones, which have become vital in modern combat actions.

Regarding EW, if I understood you right, you need both the equipment and qualified specialists to coordinate your actions with other units. One must bring impressive expertise to avoid jamming their own drones entering the EW range.

It is a separate science. According to the manning table, EW and SIGINT specialists must be on the level of a battalion. Of course, a battalion would act in the interests of its smaller units. However, ideally, these specialists must be on the level of a company.

Unfortunately, the manning tables used today have been written for the past wars. It is fabulous that the Ukrainian state considers successful UAV application cases and introduces a new military branch.

But one must understand that any change to the manning table is difficult because it is always followed by logistics changes. If the government writes something in the manning table, it must supply all the means for a respective position.

So, let’s pay more attention to the capabilities of our state, daily facing extraordinary challenges while constantly adapting to new circumstances. We fight and develop our army at the same time. Come on, it is hard work.

Why did I mention this? Because our people like to make stupid conclusions. If something wrong happened, someone must always be found guilty—an official or a high-ranked military officer. But you need to understand that any change in the manning table means logistics changes. If something is missing, it is not always because someone is stealing.

We just don’t have enough means to create a perfect manning table with EW and SIGINT specialists, a land robotic platform operator, and space intelligence on the level of a company.

In reality, first, teach a guy to be an infantryman. Then, they cohere with others as basic infantrymen with opportunities to use other means like electronic warfare and signals intelligence. The fact that such options are available on the company level makes such infantry more valuable for application beyond regular assault operations.

And if you fight with other men, and this very infantry guy works as an EW/SIGINT specialist, you have a so-called gentlemen agreement or a Cossack agreement.

People who understand this concept would not avoid their duties in the army and would wish to master new skills due to understanding that their lives depend on it. So now you have an idea of the mental basics of a volunteer battalion.

We should thank the units that are not afraid of undertaking more and more innovations.

Technological Handicap and Saving Lives

In one of your late public speeches, you emphasized the importance of having a technological handicap over the enemy. In your point of view, does it exist? Is it negative? Is it equal? Or are we a step ahead?

How far have we gone on a technological level compared to Russians? Are we winning or losing? I don’t know. I would like to believe that we are a half-step ahead.

My belief is based on over two years of the full-scale war. Let’s look at the 2022 situation: without a doubt, Ukraine was the first to widely apply DJI Mavic drones. And it gave unbelievable results on battlefields. How does it look in practice? Russians sometimes had ten times more artillery munition than we did. Under such circumstances, we never dreamed of victory but only hoped to suppress the enemy somehow.

Despite all this, we managed not only to hold the enemy but also to perform an incredibly successful counteroffensive in the Kharkiv region. Why? Because Ukrainians were motivated, skilled, persistent, and technologically advanced. We understood the importance of drones in highly efficient artillery use. When Russians shelled the squares, we hit precise targets.

Another example is last autumn when US help ceased to come at the most critical moment, and we had “munition hunger.” FPV drones were our Plan B.

In Ukraine, you can see innovations going from the bottom to the top, from volunteer communities with a proper mental setting, “Let’s try something that nobody tried before.” Innovations are made by privates and considered and widely implemented by higher officers in the Defense Forces of Ukraine.

In Russia, it works differently. They study our successful cases and command to scale up our solutions vertically from the top to the bottom. By doing so, the enemy catches us up very quickly. For instance, in early 2023, we had a significant advantage in Bakhmut: Mavic drones dropping explosives 24/7. But in late summer of 2023, the enemy already had more drones than we had. We couldn’t relax either during the day or at night. And they achieved this just in a few months.

The enemy researches our innovations, reproduces them, and scales their production up. Nevertheless, our success in this war means to be always a half-step ahead. I think we can succeed here. I wish we could do it faster.

When preparing a fundraiser for the Da Vinci Wolves, we heard a statement about “a battalion of the future” from your Back Office team. It should follow the philosophy of saving as many lives of Ukrainian warriors as possible by achieving a technological advantage over the enemy.

Futurists started to speak about it a long time ago, and the practitioners implement theories in very this time with the help of various military equipment. We all read books and watched movies about robot wars. Some unmanned vehicles have been used during World War II already. Unfortunately, the military doctrine we had at the beginning of this war had been written based on past wars. But we all understood that the next doctrine would be written based on the current war. Thus, the winner will be the one who will adapt a new doctrine faster than the competitor.

The Armed Forces of Ukraine are writing this new doctrine right now. To finalize it, we need only two things: forces, the manpower that can implement the doctrine, and the materiel needed to complete this task.

The logic of the doctrine demands to hold infantry as far from the frontline as possible. And even if the men are close to the contact line, they must be ultimately safe. Our primary goal is to save lives. An experienced warrior is the most valuable asset at war. We have plenty of guys with combat experience in our battalion. Today, they share it with others and try to implement their experiences into new solutions mentioned before.

Compared to the past wars, there were never such sophisticated intelligence opportunities in history. However, there is the opposite side of the medal: the ever-highest restraints on forces and equipment concentration in history. Because as soon as some forces concentrate on a spot, the enemy will see it. So, it is nearly impossible to perform a hidden maneuver. And now imagine how it looks on the army level—totally impossible.

I remember you on the manning tables from old wars that we still use today. So, what can we do and change on the practical level? In boot camps, we aim to cohere the maximum number of different forces and equipment. We combine the infantry with land robot platforms already during drills to clearly understand how electronic warfare and signals intelligence work. We test the gear together with our air surveillance units, FPV drone operators, etc. In other words, we already use methods not present in the current military doctrines during training. We exchange our experiences peer-to-peer with other passionate battalions, especially volunteer battalions, to craft the new doctrine together.