Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has all the traditional hallmarks of a conventional war, with troops and tanks on the ground and airstrikes from above. But even as today’s battles resemble wars of old, Ukraine has been successfully defending itself beyond expectations in part because of the courage and determination of its people who have used new technology in ways that are changing how wars are fought.
Historically, the speed and accuracy of information that reaches decision-makers has been an Achilles heel of armies. But Ukraine is showing the world how a smaller force can fend off a larger military foe using a readily available mix of military and commercial technologies, especially for communications. The Russia-Ukraine war is a warning: to ready the U.S. military for future conflicts our nation needs far more public-private collaboration, and fast.
When Russian strikes in early 2022 hit Ukraine’s infrastructure and knocked out the ability for Ukrainian military leaders to communicate with their troops, Ukraine moved fast to use commercially available, satellite-based internet access via Starlink and logistics services like FedEx to reopen lines of communication. Since then, hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian civilians have used technology to report critical battlefield information to the government, such as enemy troop movements and local intelligence.
On the battlefield, soldiers with limited weapons use handheld tablets and mobile devices to get real-time data from satellites to target their efforts. Algorithms help Ukrainian troops rapidly determine the most urgent threats and opportunities, from the enemy’s exact location to the weapons most likely to prove effective in a strike.
Traditionally, intelligence about the enemy would be communicated up the chain of command and then down through the military command structure. But Ukrainian troops are accessing this information immediately via an array of drone and satellite imagery, some of it from publicly available sources. Having that data can be the difference between an army’s commanders deciding to advance or retreat from an attack.