Advancing in Adversity: Ukraine’s Battlefield Technologies and Lessons for the U.S.
This policy brief was originally published by the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.
This piece is a series in Belfer’s analysis on the war in Ukraine, including most recently a primer on Ukraine and NATO’s relationship. Future analysis will explore Russia’s use of technology during the war, and specific recommendations for the US defense enterprise to support Ukraine.
The underdog invaded by a major world power, Ukraine was outmatched on every traditional defense metric. In 2021, the year before Russia’s invasion, Ukraine defense spending was $4.7 billion compared to Russia’s $45.8 billion. Russia outnumbered Ukraine in personnel, aircraft, armored vehicles, maritime vessels, and almost every element of conventional warfare.  Lacking the capabilities of NATO, Ukraine’s smaller force had to become agile – leveraging novel uses of technologies to even the playing field. Ukraine’s use of modified commercial aerial and naval drones, new satellite and artificial intelligence capabilities, and social media has given Ukraine an edge which has implications for current and future conflicts. This article outlines five innovative technology applications used by Ukraine and explores four key lessons for the United States, including the benefits of flexibility in public-private partnerships and the changing role of the civilian in 21st century warfare.
Commercial Aerial Drones
To defend along an 800-mile front, Ukraine needed quickly deployable reconnaissance capability and adaptable weaponry. Low-cost commercial drones nearly immediately filled that gap and have played a crucial role in limiting Russia’s advances. While aerial drones have been used in military operations since the Vietnam war, Ukraine has made large-scale unprecedented use of commercial drones, quickly modified for use on the battlefield. Additionally, apart from more conventional applications like reconnaissance, Ukraine has employed these drones to guide artillery fire and to execute attacks by dropping munitions or flying them into enemy targets.
Some reports estimate Ukraine loses thousands of drones per month to Russian electronic jamming and maintenance issues. However, even with the short life span, the low-cost of these drones allows Ukraine to quickly replenish stocks and maintain capability. The most common drone has been the Chinese produced DJI-Mavic, available for just $2,000. Ukraine has been increasing procurement and domestic production by two parallel efforts: the Army of Drones initiative and removing trade barriers to drone imports. The Army of Drones initiative seeks to bolster Ukrainian forces with drone capability through donations from the private sector and individuals. Donors can choose to donate money to specific drone purchases, or send in new or used private drones in good working order. In its first three months, the initiative enabled the procurement of 1,400 drones, both commercial and military, and facilitated training for pilots. To support this, Ukraine simplified regulations around the import of drones, and removed VAT and import taxes, to expedite getting drones into the country.
In Ukraine’s ongoing counteroffensive, drone operations continue to play a pivotal role. Operating just 1km from the front line working in tandem with traditional tank units, drones provide reconnaissance and small munitions in the tech enabled 21st century trench warfare. Efforts on the front lines are also complemented by more traditional small unmanned aircraft systems (sUAS), which have been used to target Moscow directly. Ukrainian intelligence officials have claimed responsibility for these recent longer-range drone attacks on Moscow buildings in July.
Naval Autonomous Systems
Russia’s traditional naval strength posed a significant threat to Ukraine, with Russia achieving early victories on the seas and imposing a naval blockade. Ukraine first countered Russian sea power with traditional naval weapons, bringing down the Russian flagship Moskva in April 2022 with anti-ship cruise missiles. But as Russian assets started operating further from the Ukranian coastline, Ukraine turned to unconventional naval vessels on the surface and subsurface to attack and deter Russian forces.
The underlying technology is far from advanced weaponry, with the simplest models appearing to consist of a water jet from a Sea Doo jet ski packed with explosives and communications devices, for a cheap price tag of $250,000. In October 2022, a fleet of these attacked Russian ships in Sevastopol, damaging three vessels. Russian aircraft can still spot USVs, so Ukraine is also making advances in underwater unmanned vehicles (UUV). Brave1 – a Ukrainian public-private defense collaboration – recently revealed its new UUV Tolka TLK-150. At only eight feet long, it minimizes the risk of detection and is Ukraine’s first self-developed UUV. Public donations are again key to funding these capabilities, with Ukraine’s fundraising materials offering to name unmanned vessels after significant donors.
Maritime autonomous systems are already making an impact during Ukraine’s ongoing counteroffensive. On July 17, Ukrainian surface drones attacked the Kerch bridge, the critical link between Crimea to mainland Russia. This demonstrates the range of unmanned vehicles – about 440 miles – and that USVs can strike a breadth of targets, including infrastructure and other surface vessels.
After Russian hackers successfully disrupted more existing traditional satellite communications in the early days of the invasion, Ukraine immediately pivoted to using Starlink –– a SpaceX-owned network of thousands of low-earth-orbit satellites that provides high speed internet with minimal ground infrastructure. As further offensive strikes destroyed or degraded much of Ukraine’s traditional internet infrastructure, this cutting-edge commercial technology became critical to the defense effort. With Starlink, the Ukrainian military and civilians are able to access the internet through small portable terminals that connect to the satellites. There is essentially no alternative to Starlink in Ukraine, as its portability, cost, and ability to resist jamming make it uniquely resilient to disruption efforts.
Yet Starlink also revealed a key vulnerability of reliance on commercial technology: with Elon Musk at times threatening to withdraw free access, and company executives announcing they would curb the use of Starlink for offensive purposes. Now supported by Pentagon funding, Starlink remains a critical part of Ukraine’s war effort, enabling command and control as well as the use of aerial and naval drones, social media, and AI for military purposes.
Speed of analysis will always offer a tactical advantage on the battlefield. Outnumbered by Russia, Ukraine is looking to AI to enhance decision-making. From quickly sifting through drone footage, to empowering targeting solutions, AI underlies much of the technology Ukraine is leveraging on the battlefield.
Ukraine is using AI-enhanced software Palantir, which synthesizes knowledge of friendly force weaponry and ranges, and then makes recommendations for targeting solutions. Additional uses of AI in the battlespace include the U.S. company Primer analyzing Russian radio. Traditional surveillance relies on humans to translate intercepted signals and then decode code words and colloquialisms, which takes substantial time and personnel. AI trained and adapted on unencrypted Russian radio can quickly get actionable intelligence into the hands of warfighters. AI has also been used for facial recognition. Beginning in March 2022, Ukraine has been using Clearview AI to vet individuals at checkpoints and identify deceased soldiers.
Platforms and Applications
With military capabilities less advanced compared to the US and NATO, Ukraine had an urgent need to rapidly develop situational awareness to inform military decisions. Battlefield situational awareness applications have reinvented warfare in the 21st century, but Ukraine has innovated and honed these technologies in three unique ways.
First, user friendly designs are employed and accessible at all levels. For direct military purposes, Ukraine developed Delta – a new platform to provide situational awareness of enemy and friendly forces into a real-time battle command application. The app layers satellite imagery and targeting information on top of more traditional battlefield position tracking. Social media also feeds directly into Delta to display a more holistic picture of the battlefield. In addition, Ukraine employs Kropyva: developed by a Ukrainian nonprofit, this software runs on simple Android tablets and enables more effective artillery targeting.
Second, applications have engaged civilians directly as reconnaissance agents. Ukraine has leveraged an existing government app, Diia, which was previously just employed for civil uses, such as paying taxes and applying for passports. With the updated version, Ukrainian forces are able to collect intelligence from everyday citizens. Diia is installed on 70% of smartphones in Ukraine, allowing the majority of Ukrainian citizens to quickly and easily report enemy movements via encrypted messages and provide real-time intelligence.
Third, Ukraine is able to act on raw social media information at an unprecedented speed. Intelligence and military agencies have long used open-source information to inform assessments, but connectivity at all levels of the Ukrainian army is helping translate social media into swift action. For example, Ukrainian forces used the geolocation data from a Russian soldier’s selfie posted on vKontakte – a popular Russian social media site – for immediate battlefield damage assessments, confirming their strikes on an occupied position. Ukrainian companies like Molfar can find locations of Russian units within three hours of videos posted online. This approach has been leveraging poor Russian operational security, and Russia is no doubt clamping down on soldier’s social media use. Yet the centrality and speed with which Ukraine is responding to unclassified sources is revolutionary in warfare.
“[A] small UAV team … [carries] a Starlink and a generator or a battery with them. They would find some hideout, some place where they can launch a drone from, and they would launch a drone that you could buy on Best Buy. And they would communicate with their chain of command on the phone using WhatsApp or Signal. And on top of that, they would, of course, have a tablet with the map that's synced via Starlink, and it has all the targets. And that also allows them to mark the areas where the shell has landed because they can see the explosion from the drone. So every single piece of this chain is commercial equipment. It's not even dual use. It's commercial that anyone can buy without any restrictions, using just their personal funds.”
— Andrey Liscovich, President of Ukrainian Defense Fund
Lessons for the United States
Effectively leveraging emerging technology has helped Ukraine hold its own in a war against Russia’s traditionally superior military. Yet innovation cannot be static – especially in face of a determined and well-resourced opponent. Already, Russia is counter-adapting to Ukraine's innovations: from jamming Ukrainian drones, to experimental electronic warfare aimed at bringing down Starlink,  to investing in AI-powered weapons. It will be critical for Ukraine to continue to update and innovate. There is an opportunity for the US to learn from Ukraine’s experience. We’ve identified four key lessons from Ukraine’s innovations to inform the US’s approach in current and future conflicts.
The Role of Public Private Partnerships
Ukraine’s agile public private partnerships have increased flexibility and responsiveness to a rapidly changing battlefield. Innovation works from multiple channels: private industry needs a pathway to inject solutions and operational units need to be able to identify requirements. Ukraine is leveraging both mechanisms, through innovation hubs like Brave1, and bottom-up with soldiers procuring off the shelf technology. Ukraine’s nimble innovation architecture has enabled advancements in all warfare domains.
The private sector has the risk-appetite, agility and market incentives to develop cutting edge innovations, in a way that publicly funded institutions can’t match. The US is no stranger to the value of such collaborations, investing heavily in the US defense industrial base. Yet there is an opportunity to investigate whether such engagements can be streamlined. There are over 20 “innovation” commands within the Department of Defense, and even an entire initiative through the US research center MITRE to help “demystify,” acquisition and contracting. The complicated federal acquisition process is also leading to lessening diversity in the US Defense industry, with many small and medium-sized companies not able to foot significant entry costs to the market. The US should consider how to allow more direct and flexible engagement with the private sector, including through streamlining regulatory requirements, to leverage the full benefit of US innovation for defense outcomes.
Implications for Conventional Warfare
Emerging applications of technology are removing some of the asymmetric advantage between more established militaries and smaller forces. The importance of traditional military might, however, cannot be discounted. Russia’s successful defensive entrenched positions rely on traditional conventional warfare: mines, tanks, sniper posts, and layered lines of defense. To attempt to break through Russian lines, Ukraine has merged innovative technology with conventional warfare: small drones conducting reconnaissance for tanks, and Starlink connecting units along the front lines. But Ukraine’s desperate need for tanks in the counteroffensive shows traditional warfare has a role and sheer numbers still matter. Both Russia and Ukraine are employing a strategy of attrition - slowly and steadily degrading the enemy’s personnel and supplies - the same strategy used in wars spanning back hundreds of years. As British General Sir Patrick Standards put it: “you can’t cyber your way across a river.” Technology and traditional warfare are linked in the battlespace, evermore in the 21st century.
Local civilians represent increasingly valuable partners to military forces. While US counterterrorism operations in the last two decades have tried to rely on the goodwill of the citizens, Ukraine showcases the power of a mobilized civilian population armed with technology. The seamless integration of civilian intelligence and targeting shows real potential to shape future conflicts. Leveraging this resource will require both support of local populations and ways to ingest and action new sources of data. Soft power will continue to be a critical component of any effective military campaign, alongside the technology solutions that can bring civilian forces into the fight.
Leading Global Governance
Ukraine is a case study in how quickly innovation reaches the battlefield when there is an existential threat. While this has helped Ukraine defend its sovereignty, such rapid innovation in wartime can sometimes lead to catastrophic outcomes. Often, global governance is only implemented retrospectively. In WWII, the use of an atomic bomb and its horrific consequences triggered international agreements to counter nuclear proliferation. Significant investments are required to circumvent international nuclear norms and establish a nuclear weapons program, but technologies that are easily spread and shared are more difficult to control. There is a risk that periods of conflict lead to innovations – like autonomous weapons – without consideration of how these weapons might easily proliferate across state and non-state actors. Russia has already announced its intentions to create AI-enabled weapons, and in 2022 created a dedicated department to this end. Such risks call for a proactive approach to international governance and norm setting, and as a technology and military leader, there is an opportunity for the US to play a leading role in this space.
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Grace Jones is a research assistant at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.
Janet Egan is a research assistant at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.
Eric Rosenbach is a Senior Lecturer at the Harvard Kennedy School and is the Director of the Defense, Emerging Technology, and Strategy Program at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.