Private enterprise and hi-tech penetrate the fog of war in Ukraine, but Russian Government struggles

Private enterprise and hi-tech penetrate the fog of war in Ukraine, but Russian Government struggles. By David Ignatius.

Two Ukrainian military officers peer at a laptop computer operated by a Ukrainian technician using software provided by the American technology company Palantir. On the screen are detailed digital maps of the battlefield at Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine, overlaid with other targeting intelligence — most of it obtained from commercial satellites.

As we lean closer, we see can jagged trenches on the Bakhmut front, where Russian and Ukrainian forces are separated by a few hundred yards in one of the bloodiest battles of the war. A click of the computer mouse displays thermal images of Russian and Ukrainian artillery fire; another click shows a Russian tank marked with a “Z,” seen through a picket fence, an image uploaded by a Ukrainian spy on the ground.

If this were a working combat operations center, rather than a demonstration for a visiting journalist, the Ukrainian officers could use a targeting program to select a missile, artillery piece or armed drone to attack the Russian positions displayed on the screen. Then drones could confirm the strike, and a damage assessment would be fed back into the system.

This is the “wizard war” in the Ukraine conflict — a secret digital campaign that has never been reported before in detail — and it’s a big reason David is beating Goliath here. The Ukrainians are fusing their courageous fighting spirit with the most advanced intelligence and battle-management software ever seen in combat. …

For me, here’s the bottom line: With these systems aiding brave Ukrainian troops, the Russians probably cannot win this war.

The power of advanced algorithmic warfare systems is now so great that it equates to having tactical nuclear weapons against an adversary with only conventional ones,” explains Alex Karp, chief executive of Palantir, in an email message. “The general public tends to underestimate this. Our adversaries no longer do.” …

The “kill chain”:

The “kill chain” that I saw demonstrated in Kyiv is replicated on a vast scale by Ukraine’s NATO partners from a command post outside the country. The system is built around the same software platform developed by Palantir that I saw in Kyiv, which can allow the United States and its allies to share information from diverse sources — ranging from commercial satellite imagery to the West’s most secret intelligence tools.

This is algorithmic warfare, as Karp says. Using a digital model of the battlefield, commanders can penetrate the notorious “fog of war.” By applying artificial intelligence to analyze sensor data, NATO advisers outside Ukraine can quickly answer the essential questions of combat: Where are allied forces? Where is the enemy? Which weapons will be most effective against enemy positions? They can then deliver precise enemy location information to Ukrainian commanders in the field. And after action, they can assess whether their intelligence was accurate and update the system.

Data powers this new engine of war — and the system is constantly updating. With each kinetic strike, the battle damage assessments are fed back into the digital network to strengthen the predictive models. …

What makes this system truly revolutionary is that it aggregates data from commercial vendors. … The available data includes a surprisingly wide array, from traditional optical pictures to synthetic aperture radar that can see through clouds, to thermal images that can detect artillery or missile fire.

To check out the range of available data, just visit the internet. Companies selling optical and synthetic aperture radar imagery include Maxar, Airbus, ICEYE and Capella. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration sells simple thermal imaging meant to detect fires but that can also register artillery explosions.

In our Kherson example, Palantir assesses that roughly 40 commercial satellites will pass over the area in a 24-hour period. Palantir normally uses fewer than a dozen commercial satellite vendors, but it can expand that range to draw imagery from a total of 306 commercial satellites that can focus to 3.3 meters. Soldiers in battle can use handheld tablets to request more coverage if they need it. …

A final essential link in this system is the mesh of broadband connectivity provided from overhead by Starlink’s array of roughly 2,500 satellites in low-earth orbit. The system, owned by Elon Musk’s SpaceX company, allows Ukrainian soldiers who want to upload intelligence or download targeting information to do so quickly. …

Talented, motivated, and with private entrepreneurs — so unlike the war in Afghanistan:

I visited here at year’s end to explore what I believe is the overriding lesson of this fight — and indeed, of the past several decades of war: A motivated partner like Ukraine can win if provided with the West’s unique technology. The Afghanistan army cracked in a day because it lacked the motivation to fight. But Ukraine — and, before it, the Syrian Kurdish fighters who crushed the Islamic State with U.S. help — has succeeded because it has both the weapons and the will.

Ukraine has shifted the political landscape in Silicon Valley. For Karp and many other technology CEOs, this is “the good war” that has led many companies to use their tools aggressively. This public-private partnership is one of the keys to Ukraine’s success. But it obscures many important questions: How dependent should countries be on entrepreneurs whose policy views could change? We can applaud the use of these tools in “good” wars, but what about bad ones? And what about private tools being turned against the governments that helped create them?

We’ll be struggling with these questions about technology and warfare for the rest of this century. But after spending weeks investigating the new tools developed by Palantir and other companies, the immediate takeaway for me is about deterrence — and not just in Ukraine. Given this revolution in technology, adversaries face a much tougher challenge in attacking, say, Taiwan than they might imagine. The message for China in this emerging digital battle space is: Think twice. …

Dumb old Russian Government:

In this wizard war, Ukraine has the upper hand. The Russians have tried to create their own electronic battlefield tools, too, but with little success. They have sought to use commercial satellite data, for example, and streaming videos from inexpensive Chinese drones. But they have had difficulty coordinating and sharing this data among units. And they lack the ability to connect with the Starlink array.

“The Russian army is not flexible,” Lesya, the Ukrainian officer, told me. She noted proudly that every Ukrainian battalion travels with its own software developer. Ukraine’s core advantage isn’t just the army’s will to fight but also its technical prowess. …

“This is the most technologically advanced war in human history,” argues Fedorov [Ukraine’s digital minister]. “It’s quite different from everything that has been seen before.”

How long before we have AI in charge of the weapons systems? 10 years maybe?