"Digital war": how technologies help Ukrainians win

“Digital war”: how technologies help Ukrainians win

We translated an interesting Washingtonpost article about technologies that help the Ukrainian army win the war against Russia. The article turned out to be large, so it was divided into two separate parts. The second will be very soon.

Kyiv, Ukraine. Two soldiers are peering into a laptop. The Ukrainian specialist works using software provided by the American company Palantir. On the screen are detailed digital maps of the Bakhmut battlefield and other intelligence data, most of it from commercial satellites.

If you look closely, you can see the trenches on the Bakhmut front: Russian and Ukrainian troops are located at a distance of several hundred meters from each other. Only one click – and a “heat map” is displayed on the screen, showing the fire of Russian and Ukrainian artillery; one more – and we see a Russian tank, marked with the letter “Z”. It is visible through the fence: this image was uploaded by one of the Ukrainian intelligence officers.

Were it not a demonstration for a foreign journalist, the Ukrainian military could use a targeting program to select a missile, artillery mount or drone to attack the Russian positions that we see on the screen. After that, the drones could confirm the strike, and the damage assessment would be reflected in the system.

Previously, no one has voiced the details of this “digital war”. But that’s one of the reasons why David beats Goliath: the combination of high morale with superior intelligence and combat management software.

“Persistence, will, and the use of the latest technology give the Ukrainians a decisive advantage,” Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, told me last week.

I think Millie is right about how technology affects the course of the war.

“Modern algorithmic warfare systems provide such a big advantage that their impact is comparable to the use of tactical nuclear weapons against conventional weapons,” explains Alex Karp, chief executive of Palantir. “The general public tends to underestimate the impact of these systems. But those against whom they are used no longer think so.”

Alex Karp, CEO of Palantir, speaks in Cologne, Germany on September 7, 2021.

“It’s a matter of survival for us,” says Stepan, a senior Ukrainian officer who took part in the Kyiv demonstration. Before the war, he developed software. His real name is something else, but for the sake of safety, I agreed to use a fictitious name.

The second officer “Lesya” also worked in IT in peacetime. She looks at photos of Russian invaders as their drones attack civilian targets in Odessa and whispers revenge. The girl hopes that Ukraine will emerge from the war as a technological state. Although the Ukrainians are now dependent on the technological assistance of the United States, she says, “by the end of the war, we will already be selling software for Palantir.”

A new deterrent

I arrived in Kyiv a little over a week ago. It was cold and snowing, in some places the lights were turned off. But it was relatively calm in the capital, on Friday a traffic jam formed at the entrance to the city. On Saturday evening the restaurants were so crowded that I couldn’t make a reservation at one of the establishments.

The spirit of resistance and resilience is felt everywhere. The checkpoints have mostly disappeared. Children play near captured Russian tanks on Mikhailovskaya Square. A couple walks in the park above the Dnieper.

I came to explore what I believe was the most important lesson of this war: that a motivated partner like Ukraine can win if given the unique technology of the West. The Afghan army lacked the motivation to fight. But Ukraine (and before that, the Syrian Kurds who overcame the Islamic State with the help of the United States) has succeeded because it has both weapons and high morale.

I met with the Palantir senior team visiting the Kiev office. With the approval of Karp, the CEO, they agreed to show me some of the company’s technology near the line of fire.

Early in its existence, Palantir collaborated with the CIA on counterterrorism tools. The company has received a lot of criticism, partly because co-founder Peter Thiel, a successful technology investor, has been a vocal supporter of Donald Trump and other MAGA Republicans. Karp, on the contrary, supported many candidates and initiatives from the Democratic Party.

Critics have alleged that government agencies have misused Palantir’s powerful software, violating privacy or using it for dubious purposes.

For example, The Post wrote in 2019 that the Palantir software was being used by Immigration and Customs Enforcement to track undocumented immigrants. Tech community activists have raised the question of whether Palantir is too close to the US government, whether it can “see too much” with its tools.

Last week, Karp responded to criticism of the company in an email: “Silicon Valley, which does not like us, has not made the world less dangerous. We have created software products that have made America and its allies stronger. And we’re proud of it.”

And Ukraine has changed the political landscape in Silicon Valley. For Karp and many other CEOs, this is a “good war” that has forced many companies to aggressively use their tools. This public-private partnership is one of the keys to Ukraine’s success.

But many important questions arise: to what extent can countries be dependent on entrepreneurs whose political views can change? We can applaud the use of these tools in “good” wars, but what about the bad ones? What about private tools against the governments that helped create them?

We will return to these questions again and again. But after spending weeks researching new tools developed by Palantir and others, I came to an important conclusion. They also work for deterrence and not only in Ukraine.

Thanks to these revolutionary technologies, it will be much more difficult for opponents to attack, for example, Taiwan. So the message for China in this new digital battlefield is: think twice.

Huge data battlefield

The “chain of killings” I saw in Kyiv is being reproduced on a large scale by Ukraine’s NATO partners at a command post outside the country. The system is built around the same software platform developed by Palantir that I saw in Kyiv. It allows the US and its allies to share information from a variety of sources, from commercial satellite imagery to the West’s most secret intelligence tools.

This is algorithmic warfare, as Karp says. Using a digital battlefield model, commanders can see into the proverbial “fog of war”. Using artificial intelligence to analyze sensor data, NATO advisers outside Ukraine can quickly answer the question of where allied forces are and where the enemy is, and determine which weapons will be most effective.

They can then relay accurate enemy location information to Ukrainian commanders on the ground. After a strike, they can assess whether their intelligence was accurate and update the system.

Data powers this new war engine and the system is constantly updated. The system receives damage and impact data to enhance prediction models. This is not an automated battlefield.

The system I saw in Kyiv uses a limited set of sensors and artificial intelligence tools. Some of them are developed in Ukraine, partly due to classification limitations. A large external system can securely process classified data with cyber protection and restricted access, and then transmit enemy location data to Ukraine.

To imagine how this works in practice, consider Ukraine’s recent success in reclaiming Kherson. The Ukrainians had accurate intelligence about where the Russians were moving and could use long-range weapons. This was made possible thanks to intelligence about the location of the enemy, which was processed by NATO outside the country and then sent to the Ukrainians. Using this information, the Ukrainians were able to go on the offensive and quickly adapt to Russian defensive maneuvers and counterattacks.

And when Ukrainian troops strike at Russian command posts or supply trains, they most likely got the data thanks to this system. The Minister of Digital Transformation of Ukraine, Mikhail Fedorov, told me that this electronic destruction chain was “particularly useful in the liberation of the Kherson, Kharkiv and Kyiv regions.”

Minister of Digital Transformation of Ukraine Mykhailo Fedorov during his visit to Washington on December 1.

What makes this system truly revolutionary? It collects data from commercial vendors. Using Palantir’s MetaConstellation tool, Ukraine and its allies can see what commercial data is currently available about a particular battlefield. The data available are traditional optical images, and synthetic aperture radars that can see through clouds, and thermal images showing artillery or rocket fire.

To check the range of data available, just visit the Internet. Companies selling optical and synthetic aperture radar imaging include Maxar, Airbus, ICEYE, and Capella. The US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration sells simple thermal images for fire detection, but they can register artillery explosions.

In our Kherson example, Palantir estimates that approximately 40 commercial satellites will fly over the area within 24 hours. Typically, Palantir uses information from about a dozen commercial satellites, but it can extend this range to include up to 306 commercial satellites that can focus as close as 3.3 meters.

Soldiers in combat can use pocket tablets to get additional data if they need it. Western military and intelligence services are working closely with Ukrainians on the ground to facilitate this exchange of information, the British official said.

The last important link in this system is the broadband network provided by Starlink. The system, owned by Elon Musk’s SpaceX, allows Ukrainian soldiers to quickly upload information.

Here Ukraine has an advantage. The Russians also tried to create their own electronic means of combat, but to no avail. For example, they sought to use commercial satellite data and video streaming from inexpensive Chinese drones. But they had difficulty coordinating and exchanging this data between departments. And they missed Starlink.

“The Russian army is not flexible,” “Lesya” told me. She noted with pride that each Ukrainian battalion has its own software developer. The main advantage of Ukraine is not only the desire of the army to fight, but also its technical power.

Fedorov, Minister of Digital Technologies of Ukraine, in response to my written questions, listed some military-technical systems created by Ukraine independently.

These include a secure system called “eVorog”, which has enabled civilians to provide 453,000 reports since the start of the war, “Army Drones” purchased from commercial vendors for use in aerial reconnaissance, and a battlefield mapping system called “Delta”. It contains real-time factual data so the military can plan accordingly.”

“Factor X” in this war is Ukrainian high-tech and ability to quickly adapt. “This is the most technologically advanced war in human history,” Fedorov says. “It’s very different from anything we’ve seen before.”

And it changes the course of the war the world is watching after Russia so recklessly swept into Ukraine in February. This is the common triumph of man and machine.

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