Last fall, as Ukraine recaptured large swaths of territory in a series of counterattacks, it bombarded Russian forces with US-made artillery and rockets. Some of that artillery was guided by a homemade targeting system Ukraine developed on the battlefield.
Tablets and smartphones are easy to get, but a computer program made in Ukraine has turned them into sophisticated targeting tools that are now widely used by the Ukrainian military.
The end result is a smartphone app that feeds intelligence photographs from satellites and other sources into a real-time targeting algorithm to aid forces on the front lines in accurately aiming their fire.
And because it’s the software rather than hardware, it can be updated and improved rapidly and made available to more people. U.S. officials claim the device has successfully guided Ukrainian artillery toward Russian targets.
The marksmanship app is only one example of the many inventive solutions Ukraine has developed for costly challenges on the battlefield during the past almost year.
Silently flying above the heads of Russian troops, small plastic drones fire grenades and other weapons. The use of 3D printers to produce replacement components for military vehicles and weapons is allowing for more rapid and effective maintenance.
Technicians have converted normal pickup trucks into mobile missile launchers. Engineers have figured out how to fit sophisticated U.S. missiles into old Soviet fighters like the MiG-29, helping the Ukrainian air force to keep flying after nine months of the war.
Ukraine has its own anti-ship weapon, the Neptune, based on Soviet rocket systems that can hit the Russian fleet from approximately 200 miles away.
Ukrainian creativity of this sort has delighted American officials, who have lauded Kyiv for coming up with “MacGyver” answers to its combat needs, thereby bridging critical tactical gaps created by larger and more advanced Western weaponry.
Although U.S. and Western authorities don’t always know exactly how Ukraine’s custom-built systems work – largely because they are not on the ground – both authorities and open-source analysts say that Ukraine has become a veritable laboratory of the battle of cheap but effective solutions.
“Their innovation is incredibly impressive,” says Seth Jones, director of the international security program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Combat tests in the real world
At the same time, the conflict in Ukraine has provided the United States and its allies with a rare opportunity to see the operation of their own weapon systems under fire and to learn what kinds of contemporary munitions are being used by both sides to achieve victory.
Close U.S. military authorities, including operations commanders, have been keeping tabs on Russia’s progress in using Iran-supplied, disposable drones that explode on impact to cripple Ukraine’s electrical infrastructure.
An intelligence source in the West has indicated that Ukraine is “definitely a weapons laboratory in every respect” because none of the weapons they have there have ever been deployed in a battle between two industrialized countries.
“This is real-world battle testing.”
The battle in Ukraine has provided the United States military with a wealth of information about the effectiveness of its own systems.
A U.S. military operations officer with battlefield knowledge and a recent study by a British think tank indicate that some high-profile systems delivered to the Ukrainians have proven less effective than expected on the battlefield. These systems include the Switchblade 300 drone and a missile designed to target enemy radar systems.
While Ukrainian officials have gained insight into the rate of maintenance repair needed for the lightweight M142 Multiple Rocket Launcher (HIMARS) developed in the United States, the system’s importance to the country’s success cannot be overstated.
A defence official has said that military leaders will examine how Ukraine utilised its limited supply of HIMARS missiles to wreak havoc on Russian command and control, targeting command stations, headquarters, and supply depots, for years to come.
Furthermore, the M777 howitzer, a potent piece of artillery that has been essential to Ukrainian strategic considerations, is a vital piece of data. But another defence source stated that firing too many rounds too quickly causes howitzer barrels to lose their rifling, reducing the accuracy and effectiveness of artillery.
The tactical improvements implemented by the Ukrainians have also impressed Western military personnel. During the initial weeks of the conflict, as the Russians advanced on Kyiv, Ukrainian commanders altered their operations to use small teams of dismounted troops.
The Ukrainian forces could sneak up on the Russian tanks without infantry covering their sides because of their shoulder-mounted Stinger and Javelin rockets.
The United States has also studied the war in depth in order to learn key lessons about how a battle between two contemporary states might be fought in the 21st century.
The operations officer remarked that the United States might no longer need towed artillery such as the M777 howitzer system as a result of this war. It’s more difficult to maneuver such equipment to avoid retaliation fire quickly, and “it’s very hard to hide nowadays,” the speaker noted, referring to the prevalence of drones and other forms of aerial observation.
As for the lessons learned, “there’s a book to be written on this,” said Rep. Jim Himes, D-Conn., a member of the House Intelligence Committee.
A $10,000 single-use attack drone
American defense companies have taken note of this new window of research and market entry potential for their products.
Already, BAE Systems has declared that the success the Russian military has had with its kamikaze drones has inspired the design of a new armoured fighting vehicle for the Army, with a focus on increasing the amount of armor to better shield soldiers against aerial attacks.
As a result, several sectors of the United States government and industry had tried experimental techniques and strategies to aid Ukraine in a conflict when it desperately required assistance.
U.S. Special Operations Command in Europe was provided with five high-resolution, lightweight surveillance drones by the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency in the early days of the conflict in case they could be used in Ukraine. The Hexagon-made drones weren’t part of a Defense Department program, suggesting the conflict was being treated as an experiment.
The then-director of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, Vice Admiral Robert Sharp of the Navy, openly boasted that the United States had trained a “military partner” in Europe to use the system.
“What this allows you to do is go below the clouds and collect your own [geointelligence] data,” Sharp told CNN on the sidelines of a satellite conference in Denver last spring.
Despite the intensive efforts of a small group of U.S. officials and outside the industry, it remains unclear whether these drones saw combat.
Meanwhile, multiple intelligence and military officials said they hoped the creation of what the U.S. military calls “attractive” drones — cheap, single-use weapons — has become a priority for defense contractors.
“I wish we could make a $10,000 single-use attack drone,” one of these officers said wistfully.