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Ukraine Has Digitized Its Fighting Forces on a Shoestring

Ukraine has achieved a cut-price version of what the Pentagon has spent decades and billions of dollars striving to accomplish: digitally networked fighters, intelligence and weapons.

Kyiv’s improvised web of drones, fighters and weapons, linked through satellite communications and custom software, is giving its soldiers a level of intelligence, coordination and accuracy that has allowed the initially outnumbered and outgunned forces to run circles around Russia’s massive but lumbering armies.

Ukraine’s grab bag of systems, built largely around off-the-shelf equipment, remain a far cry from the U.S. military’s sprawling and hugely ambitious digitization effort, which has evolved and expanded with technological advances and carries names such as network-centric warfare. The Defense Department aims for network scale, security and bandwidth that far exceed Ukraine’s ambitions.

Still, say veterans of U.S. and allied digitization projects, Ukraine’s success cobbling together a virtual command-and-control system on the fly offers valuable lessons for the West, particularly about the need to experiment and include nonmilitary experts.

“The lesson is you’ve got to innovate, and we don’t,” said Glen Grant, a retired British lieutenant colonel experienced in military digitization who has worked with U.S. forces and Ukraine since 2014 on defense reform. Bureaucratic Western militaries are “too slow and too heavy” to apply new technical solutions to battlefield problems quickly, he said.
Ukraine’s tech-savvy population has updated guerilla-war techniques for a digital age.

Insurgencies have always repurposed tools at hand into weapons—from bamboo spikes to Molotov cocktails. In Ukraine, home to a thriving tech-outsourcing industry and hackers who operate outside the law, the motivated people are often software engineers who connect using digital services like encrypted messenger Signal and networks from companies like

Elon Musk

‘s SpaceX. And their tools have become mobile apps, 3-D printers and consumer drones.

“The enemy has been preparing for full-fledged [technology] war for 20 years. We made a technological leap in 10 months” Ukrainian Minister of Digital Transformation Mykhailo Fedorov said on Twitter last week.

Two Ukrainian soldiers armed a drone with a modified grenade to test it near Bakhmut, Ukraine, in November.



Photo:

LEAH MILLIS/REUTERS

Units are modifying off-the-shelf drones with slings they can release remotely to drop grenades on enemy positions. Volunteer soldiers are using their private-sector experience developing enterprise resource-management software for multinationals to automate payroll on the front lines. One Ukrainian company is building remote-controlled electric vehicles that can be mounted with heavy machine guns or other cargo.

And Ukrainian programmers have updated a system the military calls Delta to give local commanders real-time battlefield intelligence received from drones and from spotters living in Russian-occupied parts of Ukraine.

“It’s called connected war, and the Ukrainian army will be the most advanced ever because of life experience,” said Roman Perimov, who is leading a new military technology development unit within a brigade of the Ukrainian army. His team is building homemade drone-jamming equipment and churns out cheap, high-capacity battery units to keep soldiers online during the fighting.

“You can have 500 drones in the sky for a relatively standard military action,” he said. “This has never been seen before.”

Cheap drones and drone defense represent one of the biggest innovation areas to emerge in this war. Both Ukrainian and Russian units typically use modified versions of small commercial drones for reconnaissance and attacks.

A Ukrainian soldier watched a drone feed from an underground command center in Bakhmut, Donetsk region, Ukraine, in December.



Photo:

Libkos/Associated Press

Ukrainian soldiers have been using 3-D printers to build compact plastic harnesses that snap onto popular commercial drones so that they can be armed with grenades, Mr. Perimov said. The harnesses have inexpensive light sensors attached to a mechanical clasp. When the operator tells the drone to flash lights on its belly, the sensors pick up the light, triggering the clasp to release a strap holding a grenade. Total cost for a 3-D-printed harness is about $10 to $15, Mr. Perimov said.

“It doesn’t do a lot of damage, but it could destroy a vehicle or a couple of troopers,” said Mr. Perimov, whose unit is now exploring the use of stratospheric commercial balloons that could perform reconnaissance or relay communications over swaths of the battlefield.

One element of Ukraine’s success in innovation is how different military units and Ukrainian tech companies are working on their own new military technologies—a bottom-up approach that at times more closely resembles a string of Silicon Valley garages than a Pentagon-funded project.

“We can’t even write a contract fast enough,” says Brad Halsey, an engineer and former U.S. special operations officer who now trains U.S. soldiers in what he calls “MacGyver-ing” to address immediate needs, who notes it can take the Pentagon a year to complete an acquisition. In Iraq, he ran a techie workspace to improvise tools for soldiers, such as probes to inspect innocent-looking objects for hidden explosive devices. “Our new mantra should be ‘how to be Ukrainian,’” Mr. Halsey said.

One effort involving armed, remote-control electric ground vehicles stems from a Ukrainian military contractor that also is working on remote-controlled machine guns. The company has been demonstrating the technology in recent months, but its founder declined to comment.

One resource-management software project started in a military unit that was looking to make payroll easier after onboarding so many new soldiers. Programmers who once built such systems for private companies as part of Ukraine’s sprawling technology-outsourcing sector turned to building an open-source system for automating payroll calculations. Now they are building other modules to the software to cover things such as equipment storage, according to people involved in the project.

Ukraine’s success cobbling together a virtual command-and-control system on the fly offers valuable lessons for the West.



Photo:

CLODAGH KILCOYNE/REUTERS

Ukraine has had some centralized innovation, too. Its Defense Ministry and security services dusted off a battlefield-awareness platform that they had built to North Atlantic Treaty Organization standards but largely abandoned, said Yaroslav Honchar, a co-founder of Aerorozvidka, a nongovernmental organization that has been helping the Ukrainian army with surveillance drones since 2014. Ukraine used the system to consolidate information from drones and satellites as well as on chatbots with names such as “STOP Russian war” through which Ukrainians could send tips.

Almost every unit that participated in the battle for Kyiv last spring used Delta, which units can access by laptop or tablet, Mr. Honchar said. “Those who are under shelling are the best learners,” he added.

The result is a cut-price, improvised approximation of vast efforts that the Defense Department and other Western militaries have been working on for years, a secure digital matrix linking commanders, fighters, weapons and intelligence, say Western defense specialists familiar with Ukraine’s systems. U.S. ambitions for networked warfare have sprawled to cover a panoply of services, weapons systems and intelligence agencies while also trying to keep pace with tech advances.

Ukrainian soldiers retrieved Starlink satellite connection hardware from a roof of a damaged university after a missile attack in Kramatorsk, Ukraine, in December.



Photo:

SHANNON STAPLETON/REUTERS

One important ingredient for Ukraine’s military technology has been the decision by SpaceX to provide thousands of Starlink connection terminals early in the war, Ukrainian soldiers and commanders say. Most units have one, sometimes camouflaged in cardboard or garbage to avoid being spotted by enemy drones.

The U.S. is trying to adopt new technologies more quickly, including through a network of nongovernmental innovation hubs that are linked to the Pentagon but outside its bureaucracy, under the umbrella Defensewerx. They tap civilian know-how for military purposes and encourage brainstorming. Now, those hubs—and particularly Sofwerx, tied to U.S. Special Operations Command—will be studying Ukraine’s example, say people familiar with their work.

Write to Sam Schechner at Sam.Schechner@wsj.com and Daniel Michaels at Dan.Michaels@wsj.com

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