New military tech is the surprise twist in Ukraine’s gutsy defence

The collapse of Sam Bankman-Fried’s FTX empire this month has visibly hurt other crypto players. But it has also had another, less obvious impact: on a network of technologists with ties to Ukraine.

The philanthropic FTX Future Fund had recently been providing low-key support to entrepreneurs developing innovative military tools for Ukraine. These technologists are now, I am told, scrambling to find alternative donors after the “painful” shock of the exchange crash.

I hope you find some. But this latest crisis underscores a larger point: the nine-month duration war in ukraine it has unleashed some unorthodox grassroots innovations that investors and lawmakers would do well to watch. In particular, a global network of tech talent sympathetic to Ukraine’s cause has emerged; in part because the country was home to numerous information technology services for companies around the world before the war.

As Ukrainians use this network to search for ideas they can test, or “hack,” on the battlefield, it is generating “extraordinary innovation,” as Brad Smith, Microsoft’s president, recently noted. It is also quietly reshaping some elements of the business of war. In 20th century America, advances in military technology it tended to come from giant companies like Lockheed Martin or Raytheon, or from government-funded institutions like the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa).

The latter produced innovations such as global positioning systems and drones, which were later absorbed by civilian technology. However, today there is a rapid increase in grassroots improvisation among so-called “non-state actors”, including terrorists. One example is reports that the Houthis are using 3D printers to make drones in Yemen.

What is surprising about Ukraine, however, is that thanks to the internet, decentralized networks are improvising on a massive scale. Sometimes this involves the tech giants. Google has offered support in visible and less visible ways. (An example of the former is that it has sometimes disabled parts of its traffic location maps to aid the Ukrainian defense.) Microsoft has also provided cybersecurity support, though even Smith points out that it is the Ukrainians’ own agile response that has been crucial in fending off Russian attacks.

Meanwhile, Elon Musk’s SpaceX has supplied civilian Starlink internet terminals to enable Ukraine’s satellite communications. The subsequently chickened out, suggesting that he had never intended them for military use. But I am told that the Ukrainian tech network is now feverishly testing alternative satellite systems to support soldiers on the front lines.

What is most notable, however, is the role of young tech companies, mere toddlers on the innovation scene. Drones are a good example: smaller companies like Dedrone from the United States, Baykar from Turkey Technologies and Quantum-Systems from Germany are the focus of rapid innovation. And consumer technology, which has become so powerful and cheap in recent years, is being commandeered by entrepreneurs in surprising ways.

In the months after the Russian invasion, Ukrainian technicians figured out how to put grenades on the kind of cheap consumer drones sold online by companies like DJI. They reused the systems from companies like Dedrone to help combat Russia’s Orlan surveillance drones.

I am told that some Ukrainian battalions are now testing ways to counter the “swarms” of Iranian Shahed-136 drones that Russia is currently deploying. One idea is to use Bayraktar drones as quasi “sentries”, possibly with AI capabilities (a move that would potentially take drone warfare to new levels).

In the meantime, seven maritime and nine aerial drones they were recently sent, apparently by Ukraine, to attack Russian ships in the strategic Black Sea port of Sevastopol. The bold move surprised some military observers, who called it “a glimpse into the future of naval warfare.” Kyiv has apparently developed naval drones that feature a propulsion system from a popular Canadian brand of personal watercraft. This puts a new spin on the idea of ​​dual-use technology.

The Ukrainians are certainly not alone in this repurposing: unexpected pieces of consumer technology from around the world (including Israel) are turning up on Iranian drones, too. But what is striking is Ukraine’s decentralized power structures: Grassroots entrepreneurs have a sense of agency rarely found in Russia, where top-down hierarchies rule both military and civilian society. As Russian state television commentators themselves have pointed out, a country’s army culture invariably reflects its national identity.

Of course, such grassroots innovation has its limits: it cannot solve Ukraine’s desperate need for more powerful long-range missiles or better air defense systems. You also need reliable funding sources, as the dance with FTX Future shows.

But this new wave of technology has already changed the trajectory of warfare. And for those military strategists outside of Ukraine, it will provide study material for years to come. If and when the war ends, it may even offer a way for Kyiv to create a cutting-edge civilian technology sector. Here is hope.

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