Tech innovation helps Ukraine even the odds against Russia’s military might

For more than a year, Ukraine has been fighting for its life against a military superpower that enjoys overwhelming advantages in terms of funding, weapons, and manpower. One of the few areas were Ukraine has managed to stay consistently ahead of Russia is in the use of innovative military technologies.

Today’s Ukraine is often described as a testing ground for new military technologies, but it is important to stress that Ukrainians are active participants in this process who are in many instances leading the way with new innovations. The scale of Russia’s invasion and the intensity of the fighting mean that concepts can often go from the drawing board to the battlefield in a matter of months or sometimes even days. Luckily, Ukraine has the tech talent and flexibility to make the most of these conditions.

With the war now entering its second year, it is clear that military tech offers the best solutions to the threats created by Russia’s invasion. After all, success in modern warfare depends primarily on data and technology, not on the number of 1960s tanks you can deploy or your willingness to use infantry as cannon fodder.

Russian preparations for the current full-scale invasion of Ukraine have been underway for much of the past two decades and have focused on traditional military thinking with an emphasis on armor, artillery, and air power. In contrast, the rapidly modernizing Ukrainian military has achieved a technological leap in less than twelve months. Since the invasion began, Ukraine has demonstrated a readiness to innovate that the more conservative Russian military simply cannot match.

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Modern weapons supplied by Ukraine’s international partners have played a crucial role in the Ukrainian military’s battlefield victories during the first year of the war. Likewise, Western countries have also supported Ukraine with a range of tech solutions and assistance. At the same time, Ukrainians have repeatedly demonstrated their ability to develop and adapt new technologies suited to the specific circumstances of Russia’s ongoing invasion. Ukraine has used everthing from drones and satellite imagery to artificial intelligence and situational awareness tools in order to inflict maximum damage on Russian forces while preserving the lives of Ukrainian service personnel and civilians.

Drones deserve special attention as the greatest game-changers of Russia’s war in Ukraine. Thanks to the widespread and skillful use of air reconnaissance drones, the Ukrainian military has been able to monitor vast frontline areas and coordinate artillery. Meanwhile, strike drones have made it possible to hit enemy positions directly.

The critical role of drones on the battlefield has helped fuel a wartime boom in domestic production. Over the past six months, the number of Ukrainian companies producing UAVs has increased more than fivefold. This expansion will continue. The full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine is fast evolving into the world’s first war of robots. In order to win, Ukraine needs large quantities of drones in every conceivable category.

This helps to explain the thinking behind the decision to launch the Army of Drones initiative. This joint project within the framework of the UNITED24 fundraising platform involves the General Staff of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, the State Special Communications Service, and the Ministry of Digital Transformation. Within the space of six months, the Army of Drones initiative resulted in the acquisition of over 1,700 drones worth tens of millions of dollars. This was possible thanks to donations from individuals and businesses in 76 countries.

Ukraine is currently developing its own new types of drones to meet the challenges of the Russian invasion. For example, Ukraine is producing new kinds of naval drone to help the country guard against frequent missile attacks launched from Russian warships. Ukrainian tech innovators are making significant progress in the development of maritime drones that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and can potentially target and deter or disable warships costing many millions.

Ukrainian IT specialists are creating software products to enhance the wartime performance of the country’s armed forces. One good example is Delta, a comprehensive situational awareness system developed by the Innovation Center within Ukraine’s Defense Ministry. This tool could be best described as “Google maps for the military.” It provides real-time views of the battlefield in line with NATO standards by integrating data from a variety of sources including aerial reconnaissance, satellite images, and drone footage.

Such systems allow the Ukrainian military to become increasingly data-driven. This enables Ukrainian commanders to adapt rapidly to circumstances and change tactics as required. The system saves lives and ammunition while highlighting potential opportunities for Ukraine to exploit. This approach has already proven its effectiveness in the defense of Kyiv and during the successful counteroffensives to liberate Kharkiv Oblast and Kherson.

Ukraine has also launched a special chatbot that allows members of the public to report on the movements of enemy troops and military hardware. Integrated within the widely used Diia app, this tool has attracted over 460,000 Ukrainian users. The reports they provide have helped to destroy dozens of Russian military positions along with tanks and artillery.

In addition to developing its own military technologies, Ukraine has also proven extremely adept at taking existing tech solutions and adapting them to wartime conditions. One prominent example is Starlink, which has changed the course of the war and become part of Ukraine’s critical infrastructure. Satellite communication is one of Ukraine’s competitive advantages, providing connections on the frontlines and throughout liberated regions of the country while also functioning during blackouts. Since the start of the Russian invasion, Ukraine has received over 30,000 Starlink terminals.

Ukraine’s effective use of military technologies has led some observers to suggest that the country could become a “second Israel.” This is a flattering comparison, but in reality, Ukraine has arguably even greater potential. Within the next few years, Ukraine is on track to become a nation with top tier military tech solutions.

Crucial decisions setting Ukraine on this trajectory have already been made. In 2023, efforts will focus on the development of a military tech ecosystem with a vibrant startup sector alongwide a strong research and development component. There are already clear indications of progress, such as the recent creation of strike drone battalions within the Ukrainian Armed Forces.

The war unleashed by Russia in February 2022 has now entered its second year. Putin had expected an easy victory. Instead, his faltering invasion has highlighted Ukraine’s incredible bravery while also showcasing the country’s technological sophistication. Ukrainians have demonstrated their ability to defeat one of the world’s mightiest armies using a combination of raw courage and modern innovation. This remarkable success offers lessons for military strategy and security policy that will be studied for decades to come.

Mykhailo Fedorov is Ukraine’s Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Digital Transformation.

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The views expressed in UkraineAlert are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Atlantic Council, its staff, or its supporters.

The Eurasia Center’s mission is to enhance transatlantic cooperation in promoting stability, democratic values and prosperity in Eurasia, from Eastern Europe and Turkey in the West to the Caucasus, Russia and Central Asia in the East.

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Image: Ukraine's Army of Drones initiative is one element of the country's remarkable military tech evolution. (Photo: Daniyar Sarsenov, Ministry of Digital Transformation of Ukraine)