The West is testing out a lot of shiny new military tech in Ukraine

A drone operator launches a quadcopter to monitor the operation of an evacuation robot during its field testing on September 9, 2022, in Kyiv, Ukraine. Mykhaylo Palinchak/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

By Jonathan Guyer,
Published by Vox, 21 September 2022

How satellites, drones, and AI helped Ukraine’s counter-offensive.

As Ukraine turned a corner 10 days ago with a military offensive that retook territory from Russia, former Google CEO billionaire Eric Schmidt was meeting with senior Ukrainian officials. He was on a 36-hour visit to the country exploring technology’s role in the war.

“What I was interested in is what did the tech industry do to help?” he told a press conference organized by George Washington University, Zooming from a private jet flying back from an undisclosed European country.

Schmidt traveled to Ukraine not just as a former tech CEO, but as a billionaire investor in military technology startups who has served on influential federal boards advising the US government on adapting more artificial intelligence. He has prominently advocated for the US Department of Defense to integrate new tech, and his trip was a reminder of how integral advanced technologies and novel uses of existing technologies have been to Ukraine’s approach in this war.

Satellites, drones, artificial intelligence, and cyber capabilities have been central to the war since the first days of Russia’s invasion. New technologies have been working in concert with traditional military hardware, empowering Ukraine’s pushback against Russia. Little wonder that NATO has launched a 1 billion euro investment fund for innovation. A senior Ukrainian minister had appealed to Elon Musk via Twitter early on, to route Starlink satellites that provide high-speed internet over the country to keep the country connected even if infrastructure on the ground was destroyed. “Elon Musk is genuinely a hero here,” Schmidt said.

The most important factors in Ukraine’s advance likely relate to the unprecedented military aid packages that the United States has provided. That assistance puts Ukraine on par with the top 20 countries worldwide by military spending. The US alone has sent over $14 billion worth of security aid since Moscow invaded, according to senior US defense official Sasha Baker, who last week emphasized that Ukraine has been “creative in integrating capabilities” from the US and other allies.

A spokesperson for the Defense Department said that the US wouldn’t get ahead of the Ukrainians in detailing what tech they have. We do know that the US, for example, has sent 700 Switchblade drones made by the Virginia-based AeroVironment, and the cyber company BlackHorse has been contracted to provide for the Ukraine mission, but it’s not clear yet how much of US assistance writ large is going to cyber and AI. Tracking all those contracts “is an entire project that, in a just world, a team of people would be summarizing in real time,” says Jack Poulson, founder of the nonprofit watchdog Tech Inquiry.

But experts and former military officials said that there are several firsts in this conflict, and one of those has to do with the outsize role of relatively cheap commercial technologies like Musk’s satellites and small drones. For American experts, Ukraine is a case study for understanding how these new technologies operate in a conventional land war alongside all the other weapons the West is sending.

“There’s always this silly and, frankly, faux either/or narrative on technology in war,” says futurist Peter Singer, co-author of Ghost Fleet: A Novel of the Next World War. “It’s very clear that technology, and in particular, new technologies matter, and have been incredibly important, but are they the only important thing? Of course, not.”

Tech at war: satellites, drones, AI, and cyber

Former US defense officials told me that much of the advanced technology that Ukraine is using is commercial and off-the-shelf — in other words, useful innovations that you don’t need to be a military leader to purchase.

That might not sound revolutionary, but it stands in contrast to the Pentagon’s attempts to integrate already-developed products or technologies, which have at times been thwarted by the institution’s complex bureaucracy and tech workers’ protests against enabling the military. “We’re actually seeing that relationship happening in Ukraine and seeing it in real time, and so you’ve got commercial companies that are running to help,” says Jim Mitre, director of the International Security and Defense Policy Program at the RAND Corporation.

Satellites are not new, but small, commercial ones are a major emerging space for venture capital and new startups. And they have contributed to Ukraine’s ability to understand Russian troop movements and track potential war crimes through intensive open-source data collection.

Small commercial drones have been an important part of the Ukraine story too, and they’re doing everything from finding Russian forces, providing target-quality data for artillery strikes, and conducting battle-damage assessments. Both Ukraine and Russia are deploying loitering munitions — small armed drones that can hover in the air for hours and then drop explosives on a target — and in some cases have been used in swarms. And much has been made of the Ukrainians’ success in using the lightweight, armed Bayraktar TB2 drone; the Turkish company that makes it refuses to sell the unmanned aerial vehicle to Russia.

The use of artificial intelligence in war is incredibly controversial, but undeniably advancing. When Reuters reported that the facial-recognition company Clearview AI had provided its technology to Ukraine, critics of the company pointed to its dangers and potential misuse.

Though facial recognition had been used in limited ways in Afghanistan, now Ukraine is using it at scale. “This is the first major conventional conflict where you’re seeing face recognition deployed,” Singer, who co-manages the firm Useful Fiction that has advised the US Air Force and major military contractors, told me. “Start thinking with your sci-fi hat on.”

Another example of AI playing a role has been in the context of new apps that can be used in information operations, such as a tool from the company Primer that can do voice recognition, transcription and translation services, and may be being used to analyze intercepted Russian communications.

Many analysts predicted that the conflict between Russia and Ukraine would spell hard-core cyber attacks. The fact that nothing major has gone down, however, may be in large part due to the work of cyber defenders behind the scenes, at commercial companies and in Western governments. “There’s been an incredible amount of cyber activity, incredible,” says Singer. The example he cited was of Ukrainian hackers infiltrating electric-vehicle charging stations in Moscow and putting on the screen an anti-Putin slur. That was cute, says Singer, “However, what actually mattered is besides defacing the screen, they shut down the operations of the charging stations. They hit the internet of things. They used digital means to cause physical change in the world.” Countries have used that capability covertly before (such as in Israel’s Stuxnet attack in the mid-2000s on Iran’s nuclear infrastructure), but here is the first time perhaps it’s happened in a conventional conflict.

Large-scale military hardware endures as Ukraine’s not-so-secret weapon, but even that operates within a larger technological context. Candace Rondeaux, a researcher at the Washington think tank New America, points out, “It’s the combining of these technologies in certain ways that has been unique.” She acknowledges the centrality of the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS), the precision rocket-launcher made by Lockheed Martin that the US has sent to Ukraine to defend against Russia, but adds that in itself it’s insufficient. It’s a targeting system that requires good information and intelligence. “For that information to flow, you’ve got to have communications platforms, and the means by which to securely communicate where things are, when you want to strike them,” she said.

“It’s not HIMARS that’s winning the war for the Ukraine, nor is it traditional artillery duels,” according to Mitre, who worked as a senior Defense official until earlier this year. “It’s their ability to process information at a faster clip than the Russians that is having a big impact here.”

The breadth of information operations has led Brendan McCord, a hedge-fund manager who previously authored the Department of Defense’s first AI strategy, to describe this conflict as the first broadband war. “We fought networked wars for some time, but always in the narrowband sense,” he told me. Rather than depending on small bandwidth, low-speed data transmissions, Starlink has given Ukraine “this incredible advantage,” especially in terms of transmitting high-quality video.

“Ukraine feels like it’s a half a generation ahead on integrating the technologies that it’s using into novel war-fighting concepts,” he added.

What it means for the US

All the newly forged connections are between the US private sector and Ukraine. And the rallying of US companies is obviously not entirely altruistic.

“If you’re a defense company, what you’re hoping is that Ukrainian generals are going to be asking the US military to provide your capabilities to them,” Gregory Allen, a researcher with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told me. “And that’s just a degree of intimacy between the supplier and the warfighter across nations, that is kind of unprecedented.”

That intimacy was on display in June, when the first business executive to visit Ukraine since Russia invaded was Alex Karp, the CEO of the data analytics military and intelligence-agency contractor Palantir. “There has always been a relationship between the defense-industrial complex and private companies, but it is possible that the visibility of CEOs is notable,” says Margarita Konaev, a researcher at Georgetown’s Center for Security and Emerging Technology.

Executives of major US defense contractors have bragged about how they’d profit from arming Ukraine. Silicon Valley companies are jumping into the mix. And, in an extraordinary move, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy will keynote a US military contractor conference — speaking directly to US weapons makers.

Going forward, experts are watching how advanced technologies are being used in the battlefield to understand what lessons might apply to US policymakers. Lindsay Gorman, a fellow at the German Marshall Fund who recently served in the Biden administration on the National Security Council, says the focus of much of Washington is on how Russia’s invasion relates to China’s military power and potential scenarios for an attack on Taiwan. Others cited how quickly Ukraine has adapted new technologies and whether the US could follow suit.

For Schmidt, the lesson so far is the urgent need for government to make room for tech. The Ukrainian parliament, for instance, quickly changed a law at the onset of the war to put all of the Ukrainian government’s information in the cloud. “They should have done that before,” he said, “but the point is, the war gave everybody a political excuse to do the right thing.” Schmidt also emphasized the importance of engaging with the country’s crowd-sourced hackers.

But some experts were much more skeptical about tech’s prominence in the first major conventional war in Europe in more than a generation. “What is the role of tomorrow’s technology in today’s war?” asked Konaev. “To an extent it still remains quite limited.”

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