How Ukraine Became a Laboratory for Western Weapons and Battlefield Innovation


Last fall, as Ukraine reclaimed swathes of territory in a series of counterattacks, it hit Russian forces with American-made artillery and rockets. Guiding some of these guns is a home-made targeting system developed by Ukraine on the battlefield.

A Ukrainian-made software has turned readily available tablets and smartphones into sophisticated targeting tools now widely used by the Ukrainian military.

The result is a mobile app that feeds satellite and other intelligence imagery into a real-time positioning algorithm that helps units close to the front line fire directly on specific targets. And because it’s an application, not a piece of hardware, it’s easy to update and upgrade quickly, and it’s available to a wide range of people.

U.S. officials familiar with the tool say it has been highly effective in directing Ukrainian artillery fire toward Russian targets.

The targeting app is one of dozens of examples of battlefield innovations Ukraine has come up with during its nearly year-long war, often finding cheap solutions to expensive problems.

Small plastic drones buzzed silently overhead, dropping grenades and other bombs on Russian troops. 3D printers can now create spare parts so soldiers can repair heavy equipment on the battlefield. Technicians convert ordinary pickup trucks into mobile missile launchers. Engineers have figured out how to fit advanced American missiles onto older Soviet fighter jets such as the MiG-29, helping Ukraine’s air force keep flying after nine months of war.

Ukraine has even developed its own anti-ship weapon, the Neptune, based on a Soviet rocket design that can target the Russian fleet from nearly 200 miles away.

Impressed by such Ukrainian ingenuity, U.S. officials lauded Kyiv’s ability to “MacGyver” its battlefield needs, filling an important tactical gap left by larger, more advanced Western weapons.

Ukrainian National Guard soldiers use homemade anti-aircraft machine guns to destroy drones in Nikolayev, Ukraine.

While U.S. and other Western officials don’t always fully understand exactly how Ukraine’s bespoke systems work — largely because they’re not on the ground — officials and open-source analysts alike say Ukraine has become a veritable battle laboratory. But working solution.

“Their innovations are impressive,” said Seth Jones, director of the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

At the same time, the Ukrainian war provided the United States and its allies with a rare opportunity to study how their own weapons systems performed under intensive use — and what munitions each side used to win this fierce modern war. U.S. operations officials and other military officials have also tracked how Russia successfully used cheap, expendable drones supplied by Iran that exploded on impact to knock out Ukraine’s power grid.

A source familiar with Western intelligence said Ukraine was “absolutely a weapons laboratory in every sense of the word, because none of this equipment is really used in a war between two industrially developed countries”. “It’s a real-world battle test.”

For the U.S. military, the Ukraine war has been an important source of data on the utility of its own systems.

Some high-profile systems offered to Ukrainians — such as the Switchblade 300 drone and missiles designed to target enemy radar systems — have not been as effective on the battlefield as expected, according to a U.S. military operations officer with knowledge of Ukraine battlefield, and a recent study by a British think tank.

But the lightweight U.S.-built M142 Multiple Launch Rocket Launcher, or HIMARS, has been critical to Ukraine’s success — though officials have learned valuable lessons about the maintenance repair rates these systems require when they are in such heavy use.

How Ukraine used its limited supply of HIMARS missiles to wreak havoc on Russian command and control, attacking command posts, headquarters and supply depots was eye-opening, a defense official said, adding that military leaders would Research for many years.

Ukrainian soldiers fire shells from an M777 howitzer on the front lines as Russia continues its offensive against Ukraine.

Another important insight concerns the M777 howitzer, a powerful artillery that has been a vital part of Ukrainian battlefield power. But another defense official said that if too many shells are fired in a short period of time, the barrel of the howitzer can lose its rifling, reducing the accuracy and effectiveness of the artillery.

The Ukrainians also made tactical innovations that impressed Western officials. In the early weeks of the war, Ukrainian commanders adjusted their operations to use small groups of dismounted infantry during the Russian advance towards Kyiv. Armed with shoulder-fired Stinger and Javelin rockets, the Ukrainian army was able to sneak up on Russian tanks without infantry on the flanks.

The United States also took a close look at the conflict to learn more about how two modern nations wage war in the 21st century.

High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) during a military exercise at Spilve airfield in Riga, Latvia.

One lesson the U.S. can learn from the conflict is that towed artillery — such as the M777 howitzer system — may be a thing of the past, the operations official said. These systems are harder to move quickly to avoid returning fire — and in a world of ubiquitous drones and high-altitude surveillance, “it’s hard to hide these days,” the person said.

When it comes to lessons learned, “there’s a book to be written,” the Democratic congressman said. Jim Hymes of Connecticut, a member of the House Intelligence Committee.

U.S. defense contractors are also noticing new opportunities to research and sell their systems.

BAE Systems has announced that Russia’s success with the kamikaze drone has influenced the way it designs a new armored combat vehicle for the army, adding more armor to protect soldiers from attack from above.

Different parts of the U.S. government and industry are hard at work testing new systems and solutions, and Ukraine needs all the help it can get.

Ukrainian soldiers stand by on the front line in Bakhmut, Ukraine, with an American-made Stinger MANPAD (portable air defense system)

Early in the conflict, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency sent five lightweight, high-resolution reconnaissance drones to U.S. Special Operations Command in Europe — in case they were to be used in Ukraine. The drones, made by a company called Hexagon, were not part of the Department of Defense’s so-called program of record, hinting at the experimental nature of the conflict.

Vice Admiral Robert Sharp, then director of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, even publicly boasted that the US had trained a “military partner” in Europe to use the system.

“What this allows you to do is step out of the clouds and collect your own [geointelligence] data,” Sharp told CNN on the sidelines of a satellite conference in Denver last spring.

Despite significant efforts by a small group of U.S. officials and outside industry, it remains unclear whether these drones have ever been used in combat.

Meanwhile, multiple intelligence and military officials told CNN that their hope to create what the U.S. military calls “expendable” drones — cheap, single-use weapons — has become a top priority for defense contractors.

“I wish we could build a $10,000 one-way attack drone,” mused one of the officials.

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