Across Drones, AI, and Space, Commercial Tech Is Flexing Military Muscle in Ukraine

The early stages of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine generated significant admiration for the quality and performance of the United States’ military technology and the defense industry that makes it. Ukraine’s success in using U.S.-built Javelin anti-tank munitions is so ubiquitous in news coverage and social media memes that “Javelin” is approaching household name status. Meanwhile, the poor reliability and accuracy of Russian weapons provides new evidence that Russia’s military industrial base is so plagued by corruption that investments more often build bureaucrats a new luxury home rather than functional facilities or weapons. 

It would be a mistake, however, for the U.S. national security community to view the Ukrainian conflict as evidence that all is well with the United States’ defense industry. While access to highly capable U.S. military technology has played an enormous role in Ukraine’s success, so has Ukraine’s ingenuity at rapidly turning commercial technology into military capability. Across drones, artificial intelligence (AI), and space, commercial technology is flexing military muscle to a greater extent than at any time since the end of the Cold War. The Department of Defense (DOD)—which has launched dozens of various commercial tech-related initiatives with limited success—should take note. 

Drones: Ukrainian forces have used 3D printers to add tail fins to Soviet-era anti-tank grenades. When dropped from an overhead commercial drone, these cheap and simple munitions can penetrate the relatively weak roof armor of Russian tanks and other vehicles. This innovative combination of cheap commercial and military technology offers a useful capability that can destroy Russian vehicles costing hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars for the price of a $100 grenade and a $1,000 drone. 

AI: Anyone with experience using Amazon’s Alexa or Apple’s Siri is aware just how good modern AI has gotten at voice recognition. Taking advantage of Russia’s widespread use of unencrypted communications, Primer, an AI company, modified their commercial AI-enabled voice transcription and translation service to listen in on intercepted Russian communications and automatically highlight information of relevance to Ukrainian forces in a searchable text database. While not as good as an expert military linguist for monitoring a single channel, AI-enabled systems can operate at speeds and scale that would require thousands of analysts for only a tiny fraction of the cost. Primer has been unwilling thus far to directly state whether the Ukrainian military is currently using their system, and the Ukrainian military has been refusing to comment on questions about their use of other commercial AI. Regardless, Primer’s technical demonstration is noteworthy. 

Space: Since the war began,Mykhailo Fedorov,the vice prime minister of Ukraine, has tweeted multiple urgent pleas for direct assistance to the leadership of commercial space remote sensing and satellite communication companies. The support they have provided has been critical in providing timely intelligence on Russian troop movements and keeping Ukrainian military communications networks operational. The conflict has provided a dramatic illustration of how far commercial space companies have come in providing capabilities that used to be restricted to the most advanced military and intelligence space programs. Of note, the DOD has disclosed that it is paying for some of the commercial space imagery and communications services being used by Ukraine. 

Lessons for U.S. National Security Policymakers

Expensive, exquisite military systems are not always better than cheap, commercial ones. 

The U.S. defense industrial base is heavily skewed toward expensive, exquisite systems where high performance is the priority. Defense budget planners complain loudly and often about exploding costs of military technology, but they generally do so after the DOD has already written system requirements that are guaranteed to be pricy. Of course, it is painful when weapons systems intended to cost $2 billion each end up costing more than $4 billion, but the Ukrainian military is proving just how much can be accomplished with innovative uses of commercial technology that costs thousands of dollars, not billions. And the United States is not the only country paying attention: according to a report by Nikkei’s former China bureau chief, the Ukrainian conflict has “shaken” the Chinese navy’s confidence in its multibillion dollar investment in aircraft carriers.

Some of the most well-known United States military drone aircraft cost tens or sometimes even hundreds of millions of dollars. These military systems carry far heavier, higher-performing payloads and can operate over much longer ranges and periods of time than commercial drones. Nevertheless, such systems are so expensive that military leaders are often reluctant to use them in missions where they would face significant risk. Ukraine’s use of far cheaper commercial drones allows them to treat them more like munitions than aircraft, which radically expands opportunities for tactical innovation. Even the military-specific drones Ukraine is using—like the Turkish-built Bayraktar TB2—are incredibly cheap compared to U.S.-built alternatives. Ukraine reportedly paid around $5 million for each. 

To its credit, the DOD has increased its deliveries to Ukraine of low-cost military drones: the recently published fact sheet on security assistance to Ukraine includes “Over 700 Switchblade Tactical Unmanned Aerial Systems.” The larger model, the Switchblade 600, is a remotely piloted, man-portable kamikaze drone that can destroy Russian armored vehicles at a range of 25 miles. The unit price of the Switchblade 600 has not been disclosed, but the smaller Switchblade 300 reportedly costs only $6,000.

Commercial involvement in warfare risks blurring the boundaries of conflict.

The United States’ primary stated reason for entering World War I was Germany’s use of unrestricted submarine warfare against U.S. commercial shipping vessels trading with the United Kingdom and its allies. In an ominous echo of that history, Russia launched cyberattacks against at least two commercial space companies, SpaceX and Viasat, as punishment for the firms’ support to Ukraine. On the other side, the Ukrainian government asked Chinese drone maker DJI to block cloud-based services for Russian military forces using the firm’s drones. Given that commercial companies remain connected to and provide cloud services and software updates to hardware devices long after the initial purchase, commercial tech executives are making decisions with military consequences every day, whether they acknowledge it or not. 

Commercial tech’s agility is just as valuable as its capability.

Though machine learning AI for voice recognition is a mature technology, AI performance depends upon data, and most training data sets do not include Russian military jargon. Primer’s commercial off-the-shelf voice recognition system would not have been nearly as valuable if they had not successfully retrained the machine learning model with new data from the conflict. Similarly, SpaceX’s rapid software updates on more than 2,000 operational Starlink satellites demonstrated remarkable speed in fending off Russia’s cyberattack, a feat that one Pentagon official called “eyewatering.” Overall, commercial tech companies aiding Ukraine are demonstrating flexibility and agility that is nearly unheard of in the DOD, where software update timelines routinely take months or years, not days. 

Conclusion

The primary barriers to increased adoption of commercial technology by the DOD are bureaucratic in nature, not because commercial technology does not meet warfighter needs. Commercial tech companies struggle to get their employees needed security clearances, get access to classified DOD datasets for use in training AI models, and connect their cloud-enabled services to DOD networks. Ostensibly, all these expensive and time-consuming regulations and procedures are aimed at keeping DOD technology safe and secure, but Ukrainian soldiers have learned that staying in one place is an invitation to a Russian missile or artillery strike. When it comes to tech safety and security, speed and agility are often better armor than red tape.

Gregory C. Allen is the director of the Artificial Intelligence (AI) Governance Project and a senior fellow in the Strategic Technologies Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Allen
Director, AI Governance Project and Senior Fellow, Strategic Technologies Program