Ukrainian soldiers conduct combat drills in Ukraine on March 23, 2024.

Ukrainian soldiers conduct combat drills in Ukraine on March 23, 2024. Wolfgang Schwan / Anadolu via Getty Images

How US special operators are training Ukrainians—and what they’re learning in return

The Ukrainian troops bring battlefield experience that is helping to reshape the U.S. Army’s own special operations.

U.S. Army Col. Lucas VanAntwerp was sitting with Ukrainian special-forces soldiers one night when bad news arrived: troops they knew back in Ukraine had died in a helicopter crash. 

It wasn’t the day’s first news of casualties. Earlier, they had learned that a tank had ambushed and wiped out a special forces vehicle. Russian forces controlled the area, preventing even the recovery of the bodies.

“They kind of took their moments to mourn that loss,” said VanAntwerp, who led the 10th Special Forces Group until last July. “And then they were like, ‘All right, let's go out to eat’.” 

VanAntwerp recalled being amazed by their composure. Such a loss would have colored his next few months, played out in personal recollections and speaking with the dead soldiers’ loved ones. 

“This happens every day,” the Ukrainians told him. "That's the difference between your wars and ours. We’re losing thousands of people.” There was little to do but move on. Ukraine had lost tens of thousands of soldiers by August 2023. 

Since the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion more than two years ago, VanAntwerp and other Army special-forces soldiers have trained thousands of Ukrainian commandos in Poland and elsewhere. And U.S. troops have learned as well—not just about the Ukrainians’ special brand of resilience, but lessons from European battlefields that are now shaping Army special operations and modernization efforts.

In July 2021, VanAntwerp took command of the Army’s 10th Special Forces Group, which had been helping Ukraine remold its special operators into Western-style forces ever since Russia’s initial invasion in 2014. 

VanAntwerp’s work in Ukraine began in the least auspicious way possible: destroying sensitive communications equipment as U.S. forces withdrew from Kyiv in January 2022. It was a case of geopolitical déja vu. VanAntwerp’s battalion was also the last to leave Afghanistan. 

“I am experienced in leaving partners. It’s not something I ever want to do again,” he said.

Having withdrawn to Poland, his soldiers set up training operations for Ukrainian special operations forces. At first they received only a trickle amid the hectic first months of Russia’s full-scale invasion. Then it became a flood. Ukraine had about 2,000 special operators as the war heated up, but wanted about twice as many.

10th Group now trains hundreds of Ukrainians a month, VanAntwerp said. Some receive highly specialized training: learning to operate drones, to shoot them down, or to use other equipment. Other groups learn to attack targets selected by Ukrainian special forces. 

“I've gone at two in the morning on boats, hitting fake targets, up rivers in different countries with 20 Ukrainians,” said VanAntwerp. “Three weeks later, they're doing real missions on rivers.”

Some of the Ukrainians they train are seasoned special operators, but many are freshly enlisted. One battalion commander had received his post after two predecessors were killed. Other than a few trusted officers, most of the soldiers in his unit were new. 

“More often than not, it was more basic training, and it was more people that were just coming off the street,” VanAntwerp said. 

Training results could vary based on the commanders’ skills, VanAntwerp said. The more-disciplined units did better, while those with less-qualified commanders had trouble. One unit was out every morning doing physical training on their own — and did well. Another unit that was put together at the last minute didn’t proceed as far. 

“It really relied on the leader,” he said. 

Training in many cases was collaborative, VanAntwerp said, with Ukrainian and U.S. soldiers learning from each other. Ukrainian soldiers frequently told his troops which American tactics wouldn’t work on the battlefields of Ukraine. 

“It was 50/50: you teach us, we teach you,” he said. 

VanAntwerp said sometimes the best thing the Americans were doing for their Ukrainian counterparts was simply giving them a safe area to practice certain types of operations, such as assaulting trenches. 

“A lot of times, you're sitting there watching as they teach their guys,” he said. 

Because the U.S. has no forces inside Ukraine, VanAntwerp said, 10th Group trainers often find themselves playing a frustrating game of telephone as they try to gauge the needs, numbers, and equipment of the Ukrainian units headed their way. Some arrive short of troops; some bring extra. One unit arrived with more mortars than expected, forcing the trainers to scramble to get enough rounds for practice. 

“You almost always ended up with some of that confusion at the beginning of every course,” he said.

The calls don’t stop when the Ukrainians return home to fight, VanAntwerp said. The trained-up units get a phone-a-friend line back to 10th Group, allowing them to reach back for advice when, say, facing a tough objective. 

They would ask “what would you do if you were us?” he said. 

VanAntwerp, who returned to the United States in July, now directs the Force Modernization Center of Army Special Operations Command. Established in 2019, the center leads USASOC’s concept development, future warfare analysis and studies, science and technology, concepts and experimentation, requirements determination, and capabilities integration.

Among VanAntwerp’s top priorities are drones and counter-drone equipment, both key features of the war in Ukraine. He also cited more niche but increasingly discussed topics, such as battlefield deception: for example, simulating army formations to draw an enemy’s attention away from real units. 

“We [have] to figure out how to do that at scale and coordinated,” he said. 

VanAntwerp cautioned against taking Ukraine as a perfect model for future wars. He noted that Russia had not succeeded in shutting off the pipeline of Western weapons that flows to Ukraine. The U.S. might not be so lucky in a confrontation with China over Taiwan.

Among the chief lessons he’s taken from Ukraine, though, is the speed at which innovation must occur. Weapons used in Ukraine must make a big impact on the first day they’re used, he said. By day two, Russia will be working on a counter-measure. 

U.S. defense officials have frequently said that Russia is able to find counter-measures to U.S. weapons, including precision-guided munitions. 

“The thought of us having an asymmetric advantage because of the new piece of kit for like six months — it just won't happen,” he said. 

VanAntwerp said he took two more lessons from Ukraine’s resilience in the face of heavy losses. First, that the U.S. public must understand that a future war could mean tens of thousands of American casualties. Second, military leaders must learn to handle the emotional fallout. 

“That's one of those lessons learned: how do you move on, as a leader, from just losing a ton of people every day?” he said.