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Friday, Aug 17, 2018
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Shopping Tampa for Ukraine commandos: Bomb-sniffers, drones and laser-proof sniper scopes

TAMPA — Like a homeowner combing Home Depot for his latest project, Roman Mashovets spent a good part of Tuesday wandering the floor at the Tampa Convention Center.

But instead of nails and plywood, Mashovets — a former Ukraine special operations forces officer — was looking for things like drones, night vision scopes and robots that can remove unexploded land mines.

Mashovets, 41, founder of a non-governmental organization working with Ukraine’s nascent special operations command, is one of about 11,000 people visiting Tampa for the 2018 Special Operations Forces Industry Conference at the convention center.

Put on by U.S. Special Operations Command and the National Defense Industrial Association, SOFIC is a chance for defense contractors to show their wares to military forces from across the globe. About 425 companies are packed into about 100,000 square feet.

The conference also enables those with an interest in commando work to discuss SOCom’s needs and the industry’s solutions. SOCom, with headquarters at MacDill Air Force Base, spends billions of dollars each year on special operations needs.

Ukraine’s budget is modest by comparison.

Mashovets said his nation has about $350 million this year from the United States to spend on U.S. products and services.

"We have a lot of needs," Mashovets said.

His organization, National Platform Foundation, is helping Ukraine special operations forces in the ongoing battle against Russians and separatists in eastern Ukraine. The fighting involves about 2,700 Russian troops and about 23,000 separatists, Mashovets said.

He would not divulge how many Ukraine forces are doing battle against them. He did say his country is seeing about seven troops killed each week and about 10 to 15 wounded.

One of his first stops during SOFIC was at a company called Qinetiq, which offers an array of small robots with a variety of sensor packages and remotely operated arms.

"Can this detect TNT?" he asked. "We have a lot of casualties from enemy mines."

The next stop is a booth run by Flir, a company selling a wide range of goods including night vision goggles and a miniature drone called the Black Hornet. Mashovets’ eyes widened at the sight of a device called HISS, for High Performance Infrared Sniper Scope.

"Russian snipers are a big problem for us," Mashovets told Bill Treuting, a Flir business development manager. "Do you have any anti-sniper equipment? What is the range?"

Treuting showed Mashovets night vision rifle scopes that enable the user to see targets out to about a mile and a quarter.

"What about lasers?" Mashovets asked, explaining that Russians are using lasers to blind Ukraine snipers peering through conventional rifle scopes.

Users of the HISS, Treuting said, are looking at a TV screen and not a lens so laser systems can’t hurt them.

Next up for Mashovets was drones.

"We need long-range drones" for what the military calls ISR — intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance.

On the way, Mashovets said the Russians have been using eastern Ukraine to test a number of weapons before sending them for use in Syria — in particular electronics weapons systems that can jam enemy devices.

Mashovets eventually reached the Textron booth and marveled at a Nightwarden drone hanging overhead.

"We tried to develop our own long-range drone program, but we did not achieve our goals," he told David Phillips, a Textron representative.

Phillips said it would be difficult for Mashovets or any foreign interest to buy these kinds of systems because of restrictions on transferring technology.

"This is a challenge for us," Mashovets acknowledged.

Undeterred, he kept checking items off his shopping list.

"I will go back home," he said, "and we will figure it out."

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