Ukraine’s rapid public-private technological innovation under fire has been the most remarkable characteristic of the war and a key reason for the country’s survival. Ukrainians were well prepared before the war to resist Russian psychological warfare and employ accessible technologies in novel ways. The Ukrainian government’s strength has been its ability to mobilize all of Ukrainian society and much of the world, then fight asymmetrically with superior public will, supported by fast-moving private technology companies and open source innovation.
The ongoing Ukrainian counteroffensive shifts the war to Russia’s strength. Those on both sides are being injured or dying in the hundreds of thousands, but Russia has a larger army, more traditional firepower, far greater conventional airpower, and three times the population of Ukraine. Even with billions of dollars’ worth of military aid in the form of anti-tank missiles, air defense systems, artillery munitions, infantry fighting vehicles, and main battle tanks, Ukraine is strategically disadvantaged in its ongoing counteroffensive because Russia can take losses and dredge up more troops.
The United States is deeply familiar with relying on technological advantage to offset casualties, a core strategic concept during the Cold War contest against Russia. Especially because the Western allies will not risk their own active-duty soldiers to fortify a frontal assault, the Ukrainians should maximize the rapid public-private open technological innovation that advantaged them early in the war, because Ukraine’s strategic strength is its resilience and strong public will.
Ukraine’s Tactical Evolution
The West should be helping Ukraine to innovate and integrate technology into the military even faster, rather than expecting conscripts to quickly master Western-style combined arms tactics. In April 2023, Ukraine launched what they call the “Brave1” portal to facilitate public-private innovation in one place, and that is where more Western attention and resources should be directed.
Many analysts have tended to focus on the impact of one weapon or another — especially small off-the-shelf drones, proactive cyber capabilities, high-end tanks, or low-orbit commercial satellites. But what’s most noteworthy is how Ukrainian conscripts have been able to use clusters of commercial and military technologies (interacting technologies like sensors, satellites, machine learning, and quickly updateable software) to network, interact, and create dynamic systems much faster than Russian soldiers can.
When Russia invaded in February 2022 with an overwhelming military force using conventional technologies, Ukraine fought back with the help of a smaller group of technologically literate citizens who combined a series of disruptive technologies that are simple to use, multi-use, and off the shelf. The result was quicker decision-making and unification of capabilities across space, cyberspace, air, and land. Ukrainian fighters have used easily accessible technologies to create networks that communicate critical intelligence and orders faster and more effectively than Russian command-and-control systems, and at a much lower cost.
Everyone — from the Ukrainian soldier employing weaponized commercial drones to President Volodymyr Zelensky making nation-wide decisions — has relied on an interlinked system to collect, analyze, and translate data into actionable results in civilian neighborhoods or on the battlefield. With the help of NATO allies and open source companies outside Ukraine, the armed forces have leveraged both public and private technologies to create a data-driven command-and-control system through four dimensions — collection, connection, analysis, and action.
Data Collection: Commercial Satellite Services, Apps, and Drones
Long before the employment of lethal drones on the battlefield, Ukraine’s military has used a suite of sensors, including a combination of commercial satellite services, open source intelligence, and drones, to gather and transmit information about Russian military movements across Ukraine. These systems collect across air, space, and cyberspace to deliver critical wide-ranging data that form a clear picture of the conflict.
Commercial satellite services provide Ukraine with geospatial intelligence to visualize the deployment and movement of Russian troops. Companies like ICEYE, Usra Space, and MDA gather and analyze imagery through their privately owned synthetic aperture radar satellites, allowing decision-makers to maintain constant surveillance of strategically important locations. Commercial imagery, for example, was used to monitor a 40-mile-long Russian mechanized and logistics column heading to Kyiv in February 2022, which was subsequently attacked and destroyed by Ukrainian forces.
Ukraine has also transformed phones and social media into open source reconnaissance devices, harvesting metadata to identify Russian troops and equipment. Ukraine’s military has launched attacks on Wagner Group mercenaries and dozens of Russian conscripts in Makiivka based on metadata collected from Telegram posts and phone calls. Apps like Diia, Telegram, and Viber transform individual phones into data-collection devices, where ordinary citizens can submit geotagged photos, videos, or a brief text summary of Russian military activity to chatbots. Ukraine’s Ministry of Digital Transformation claims the apps are key sources of information: In the first month of the invasion alone, 260,000 individuals used Diia to report Russian activity.
Individual military units use commercial, off-the-shelf drones like DJI’s Phantom 3 or AeroVironment’s Quantix Recon to conduct intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance missions within a few miles of their positions. Hobbyist drones collect information critical to tactical intelligence requirements, especially for targeting. By May 2022, Ukraine had fielded 6,000 commercial drones to provide surveillance capabilities to military units. A year later they had vastly expanded their “Army of Drones” and the Royal United Services Institute estimated that the Ukrainians were losing 10,000 drones a month. Although these platforms are decentralized and controlled by individual users, the videos and imagery they capture can be transmitted and aggregated into much larger datasets.
Connecting Data to Systems: Low Earth Orbit Satellites and Telecommunications Networks
Uniting all these individual systems are satellite communications and telecommunications networks that ensure data transmission between Ukrainian units. SpaceX’s Starlink terminals give military units access to a stable network of low earth orbit satellites that connect sensors to processors anywhere on the battlefield. As widely reported, SpaceX has tried to constrain Kyiv from using Starlink for offensive military purposes. However, even with SpaceX’s restrictions in place, Ukrainian ground forces report only minor disruptions to service and soldiers are still able to communicate data from across the battlefield.
Additionally, Ukraine’s hundreds of mobile and internet providers continue to provide a decentralized network of connectivity through everything from stationary cellular and wireless towers and base stations to impromptu wireless hotspots. Decentralization offers greater redundancy and resilience, even under withering Russian artillery attack, and that feature has been more important than any one system.
Analyzing Data: Artificial Intelligence and Battle Management Systems
Once data is gathered through multiple sensors, Ukrainian forces supported by private companies use AI algorithms and digital battle management systems to unify disparate datasets into a common operating picture of all major battles and Russian units in Ukraine. Chatbots like the eVorog bot on Diia and the @stop_russian_war_bot on Telegram and Viber process thousands of civilian reports into a coherent dataset of tactical intelligence. These task-oriented chatbots take inputs — such as user metadata, images, or text regarding Russian activity, and the time and location of contact — to authenticate and prioritize citizens’ reports. Ultimately, a simple web program scraping data can provide real-time updates of Russian movements throughout Ukraine.
Ukraine has also used systems that identify patterns in photos, videos, and imagery, such as Clearview AI’s facial recognition technology and Palantir’s MetaConstellation, to predict the identity of individuals and the movement of equipment. Users equipped with Clearview’s facial recognition software can scan two billion images from the Russian social media service Vkontakte. This algorithm enables Ukrainian soldiers to vet people spotted on the battlefield or appearing in a range of media, such as images or videos. In addition, MetaConstellation combines synthetic aperture radar satellites and AI to sequentially analyze imagery and piece it together. It simultaneously identifies the geospatial data from numerous areas across Ukraine, which provides Ukraine’s forces with information about Russian movements across the country.
Ukrainian forces are also likely using tools like Primer’s natural language processing algorithms to generate concise intelligence reporting from real time or recorded Russian radio transmissions. This tool takes signals intelligence and generates a complete transcript of conversations from the recordings. Furthermore, the interface generates datasets and text reports that identify any key information (e.g., unit’s location, size, equipment, activity, and future intentions).
Operationalizing Data: Weaponized Commercial Drones and Loitering Munitions
Finally, after an entire system of disruptive technologies has compiled, analyzed, and communicated data, individual Ukrainian units can harness this information to conduct military operations. Soldiers use digital battle management systems to compile AI-provided analytical insights to identify events occurring in real time across the battlefield, then communicate a common operating picture to units across the country.
At the operational level, Ukrainians use the Delta battle management system to track the disposition of Russian forces in real time and enhance the ability of leaders to command and control forces. Delta operationalizes the insights provided by AI by overlaying the data on geospatial imagery with videos, maps, and intelligence reporting. In November 2022 Delta was credited with the destruction of at least 1,500 targets, with the current number likely in the multiple thousands. This online program developed by Ukrainian private industry is widely available to unit headquarters, with plans to create brigade-level intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition, and reconnaissance officers who can facilitate horizontal communication between commands.
At the tactical level, Ukraine has integrated systems like GIS Arta to identify targets and share coordinates of targets on the battlefield. This operates in a similar way to the U.S. military’s Advanced Field Artillery Tactical Data System by allowing soldiers to designate specific systems — like mortars, artillery, drones, and loitering munitions — to hit specific targets. Attack systems include Ukrainian manufactured drones, such as Aerorozvidka’s Drone R18, or more conventional capabilities like AeroVironment’s Switchblade 300s and 600s and the Bayraktar TB2. In Lviv, Ukraine’s Twist Robotics makes AI-powered software that guides armed drones to their targets, defying GPS spoofing and electronic jamming. The latest Ukrainian drones even drop bombs on moving targets.
Drag Strategic Planning Out of the Trenches
Every modern war ends in a political settlement of some kind. Ukraine’s ability to win this war stems from the unflagging will of its people, buoyed by international support. If hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians die in a campaign of bloody attrition, these factors will both weaken.
When a war is ongoing, high-priced conventional systems get most of the attention. This focus fits earlier wars and bolsters military hierarchies — decentralized technologies and individually empowered conscripts reach beyond leaders’ control and experience. As Rob Lee points out in the Russia Contingency podcast, the Russian military has also been innovative at the lower levels — for example, buying drones and mimicking Ukrainians’ tactics. But Russian solders’ innovations are sometimes squelched from above, and Russian soldiers lack a mobilized tech-savvy population. The average Ukrainian conscript has better situational awareness than the average Russian soldier does — and this has had a practical impact on the war. If that Ukrainian conscript dies trying to retake Bakhmut, it is not just an individual tragedy but a strategic mistake.
Innovation in communications or command-and-control usually only becomes apparent long after a war is over — as with the secret Enigma and Lorenz code-breaking during World War II, missing from the narrative of the victors for decades.
But not now. Digital technology’s tactical impact on the Ukraine war is very public and easy to spot. For example, the global open intelligence company Molfar used a team of in-house employees and Ukrainian volunteers to analyze images from journalists’ Telegram channels. Integrating them with Google Maps and Google Street View, Molfar identified members of the Russian Pyatnashka Brigade and mapped out their eastern Donetsk base. It took two and a half hours. A month later, the Ukrainians hit the Russians with a U.S.-supplied High Mobility Artillery Rocket System. This process has since been duplicated by Molfar and other commercial companies thousands of times.
Of course, open source targeting processes evolve as people change platforms (from Telegram to VKontakte, for example) or behavior (e.g., learning not to post pictures), but their impact remains dramatic. Gen. Sir John Hockenhull, who ran U.K. defense intelligence until May 2022, estimates commanders’ attention to open source versus secret intelligence should now flip from 20/80 to 80/20.
Beyond tactics, the global impact of Ukraine’s rapid innovation is powerful. The Chinese government is watching closely, planning to launch their first network of very low earth orbiting satellites akin to Starlink by the end of 2023. The NATO alliance has also taken note, launching a billion-euro investment fund called Defense Innovation Accelerator for the North Atlantic in June 2022. And some of those watching — from individual criminals to authoritarian regimes — will use open-access technologies against innocent targets in the future. No one is trying to copy what is happening in Zaporizhzhia or Kherson.
Conclusion: Broader Implications
In the seamless integration of public and private digital capabilities across these four dimensions — data collection, integration, analysis, and operational targeting — we’re witnessing the impact of a new kind of societal mobilization that is at the heart of Ukraine’s resilience. That mobilization is now threatened by a counteroffensive against a dug-in enemy with superior conventional forces.
Ukrainian society presents a 21st-century model of what it means to prepare for the next war. The Ukrainians have been training for this conflict since 2014. Ukrainian companies were subcontractors to all the major tech companies before the current war, and many citizens’ cyber, software, engineering, and computer science skills were already well developed. Ukraine’s survival today is not just a matter of tanks vs. drones or cyber attacks vs. satellites, but also of public competency in key skills that are vital to the war effort. By integrating both military and civilian capabilities, and relying on the whole of their society, the Ukrainians have produced a cheaper, data-driven, more adaptive battlefield network that has enjoyed popular support — and that is the core of their advantage.
The role of popular support will remain crucial. High-end military technological innovation in conventional forces will be necessary but not sufficient in any future war. The United States and its democratic allies should take a broader societal approach that prepares the public to be technologically savvy long before war begins. Citizens should be ready, as Ukraine’s population was, to resist psychological manipulation and employ accessible digital technologies in a sophisticated way.
Audrey Kurth Cronin is director of the Carnegie Mellon Institute for Security and Technology and trustees professor of security and technology at Carnegie Mellon University. Her latest book, Power to the People: How Open Technological Innovation is Arming Tomorrow’s Terrorists, examines the future of military technological innovation. She has been director of the core course on war and statecraft at the U.S. National War College, director of studies for the Changing Character of War program at Oxford University, and she frequently advises at senior levels of the U.S. government.