A Blog by Jonathan Low


Jul 4, 2024

In Ukraine, Startup Companies Are Redefining A Great Power Conflict

More than 200 startup companies are designing a variety of technological products designed to supplant or enhance traditional weapons systems. 

So while artillery, ammunition and 'the PBI - the poor, bloody infantry' - remain essential, technology and the people in the startups thinking it up and then producing it, are not only changing the nature of warfare but have given Ukrainian forces the additional heft to survive a larger, better equipped enemy. JL

Raj Shah and Christopher Kirchhoff report in The Atlantic

Commercial technology played a crucial role in anticipating Putin’s invasion, but also blunting it. Tanks and artillery were essential, but they became more effective when used in tandem with products built for the commercial market, such as drones and space-based sensors. Commercial technology has transformed virtually every domain of the war: communications, artillery, reconnaissance, air defense. The war’s most lethal weapon, the HIMARS rocket launcher, was directed by drones that can be bought on Amazon. 200 companies are designing counter-drone systems, self-driving vehicles, autonomous demining robots, remote-controlled machine guns—and an enormous variety of drones.

By late february 2022, Russian President Vladimir Putin had been amassing forces along Ukraine’s border for months, arraying tanks, infantry, missiles, and attack helicopters in a 1,000-mile arc from southern Belarus to the Black Sea. He denied that Russia intended to invade, and many in the national-security community believed him: Starting a land war in Europe was too far-fetched, they thought—even for Putin. That view seemed to be confirmed when Russian state media broadcast video of the military being “demobilized” and sent home.

But then the Pentagon released an unmistakable image, taken from space, of armored Russian columns crossing the Belarus-Ukraine border. President Joe Biden cited the picture as clear evidence that Putin was lying. The war had, in fact, already begun.


The satellite image, picked up by CNN and broadcast around the world, was captured not by the U.S. military but by a Silicon Valley start-up called Capella Space, founded by a 24-year-old engineer. Using 11-foot-wide mesh antennas, Capella’s satellites can spot a basketball from more than 300 miles up, through cloud cover, day or night, for a fraction of the price of military systems. As the company’s founder, Payam Banazadeh, told us, Capella offered the public “the first unclassified, open-source satellite imagery that showed the imminent invasion.” At the start of the war, news outlets used Capella’s images to track Russian units all the way to Kyiv, giving ordinary people nearly the same view as the Pentagon.


Commercial technology played a crucial role in not only anticipating Putin’s invasion, but also blunting it. Ukrainian forces, outmanned and outgunned, relied on an ingenious collection of start-ups to repel Russia in the early stages of the conflict. In many cases, Silicon Valley strengthened Ukraine’s military more quickly—and at far lower cost—than systems from established defense contractors. Conventional weaponry such as tanks and artillery were essential, but they became much more effective when used in tandem with products originally built for the commercial market, such as inexpensive drones and space-based sensors. Even the war’s most lethal weapon, the HIMARS rocket launcher, was directed by drones that can be bought on Amazon.

Supplementing traditional weapons with the handiwork of start-ups is exactly what we envisioned in 2016 when we were appointed to lead the Defense Innovation Unit (DIU), a Pentagon office tasked with integrating America’s commercial technologies into war-fighting. The Ukrainians had far less conventional weaponry than Russia, but they were able to preempt and outmaneuver their enemy in part by deploying more than 30 systems developed by the DIU and the start-ups it funded, including Capella.


Commercial technology has transformed virtually every domain of the war: communications, artillery, reconnaissance, air defense. When Russia jammed Ukrainians’ radios, they switched to Starlink internet terminals, running their command and control through encrypted smartphone apps such as Signal and WhatsApp. Skydio, the first private U.S. drone maker to be valued at $1 billion, rushed autonomous quadcopters with high-resolution cameras to Ukrainian infantry units, which used them to scout Russian positions and guide artillery fire. BlueHalo delivered Titan systems to the front that knocked enemy drones out of the sky. Anduril deployed its Ghost drone, a near-silent autonomous helicopter that could be set up in minutes. Unlike U.S. spy satellites, start-ups such as HawkEye 360 provided targeting information that could be widely shared with frontline troops without fear of compromising classified sources. Anyone with a credit card could access intelligence that once only superpowers had. The task of getting these technologies into Ukrainian hands often fell to the Department of Defense. Although the Pentagon had clear processes for transporting tanks and artillery, delivering commercial wares proved more challenging. “The acquisition system is built for supplying Patriot missile batteries in five years. It’s not built for supplying a drone tomorrow,” Jared Dunnmon, a senior adviser at the DIU who was involved with exporting commercial systems to Ukraine, told us. As a result, the Pentagon couldn’t keep up with Ukraine’s requests for start-up technology. Bottlenecks like this are typically resolved through the president’s “drawdown” authority, which allows defense officials to export equipment almost immediately from existing stocks. But because the department had purchased very little of the arsenal developed by the DIU, it had almost nothing to send.

If the war in Ukraine is any guide, the next great-power conflict will be defined by technology adapted from the commercial market. Start-ups will influence how states fund, arm, and marshal their militaries. Forces that make the most of cheaper, nimbler, and unorthodox technologies will gain a key advantage over their adversaries. The United States is beginning to learn these lessons, but we’re not adopting them fast enough. If Ukraine offers a glimpse of the future, it also offers a warning: America isn’t ready.

Last fall, we went to Ukraine to see firsthand how commercial technology was shaping the war. As we expected, Silicon Valley offered a significant boost to Ukrainian forces, but we also found an underground network of Ukrainian start-ups working to fill the gaps left by the Pentagon. Technologists tinkered in secret workshops around Kyiv, hidden in alleyways and unmarked office space, operating outside formal Ministry of Defense structures.


Some 200 companies were designing counter-drone systems, self-driving vehicles, autonomous demining robots, remote-controlled machine guns—and an enormous variety of drones, which have played a bigger role in Ukraine than in any previous conflict. We saw “mothership drones” that could launch smaller attack drones hundreds of miles beyond the front, deep inside Russia. We held a drone that was originally designed for smuggling cigarettes into the European Union and had since been repurposed as a bomber. When Russian forces jammed GPS signals in Ukraine, start-ups there built drones that relied instead on accelerometers and AI-assisted terrain mapping. Many of them sold for as little as $200. Military aircraft with similar technology generally cost orders of magnitude more.

One of Kyiv’s larger drone factories occupies a space that previously belonged to Ukraine’s version of Best Buy. When we visited, the showroom still had signs on the wall advertising big-screen TVs. In minutes, an assembly line produced a four-rotor kamikaze drone, built completely from commercial parts and ready to be attached to a four-pound shell—with either a ballistic cap for penetrating armor or a ball of steel needles to attack dismounted soldiers. Both munitions helped Ukraine defend the city of Avdiivka, a lucrative target for Russia because of its coal and railway junctures. Piloting the drones from behind the front, Ukrainians killed entire platoons of Russian soldiers as they exited armored personnel carriers, and disabled more than 200 tanks and tracked vehicles.


On a test range in Lviv, we controlled a long-range surveillance drone, using a joystick to swivel thermal and optical sensors. Despite costing one-100th of a similar Western system, the resolution was so clear that we could identify ourselves among a crowd assembled 10 kilometers from where the drone was flying. A counter-drone system supplied by a Western defense contractor, which cost roughly $250,000, tried to disable it and couldn’t.

Even though Ukrainian start-ups produced technology on par with that of Silicon Valley, they were nothing like traditional early-stage companies. They were built to kill Russians, not navigate supply-chain bottlenecks or market themselves to the military or international investors. More than anything else, developers’ personal relationships with individual military units determined which new technology and weapons were deployed. These systems cost pennies on the dollar compared with what Western firms produced, but none could scale in a way that altered the course of the war.

Although commercial technology continues to strengthen Ukrainian forces, it hasn’t been enough to stave off recent Russian advances. Many factors have tipped the war in Russia’s favor, not least of which was the long congressional debate over whether to authorize additional support. The near stoppage of funds and supplies that ensued affected both traditional weapons systems—forcing artillery crews to ration shells—as well as the Ukrainian start-up community, which relied on assistance from U.S. pro grams that had to be temporarily paused. Indeed, Russia has been able to make gains even when Ukraine’s start-ups have operated at full force. If Ukraine has shown the promise of private-sector contributions, it has also shown that innovation alone doesn’t win wars.

On the other side was much of the Pentagon’s old guard, who felt that the war in Ukraine was being decided largely by traditional weapons systems and tactics, and that Silicon Valley start-ups were getting too much credit for only modest contributions. War-fighting hadn’t fundamentally changed, they contended. Newer technology might make a difference at the margins, but tanks, missiles, and defensive trenches—the staples of warfare for decades—still ruled the day.

The debate went public when Bill LaPlante, the Pentagon’s chief weapons buyer—the person most responsible for how the U.S. military arms itself in the future—dismissed the importance of Silicon Valley technology. “The tech bros aren’t helping us too much in Ukraine,” LaPlante said at a defense conference eight months into the conflict. “It’s hard-core production of really serious weaponry—that’s what matters … We’re not fighting in Ukraine with Silicon Valley right now, even though they’re going to try to take credit for it.”


LaPlante’s belief that traditional weapons have mattered more in Ukraine than commercial technology is by no means wrong. Tanks, howitzers, and the companies that manufacture them are indispensable, which Ukraine’s experience has affirmed. But it would be a mistake to read the war purely as a reassertion of old war-fighting paradigms. One of the most important lessons emerging from Ukraine is the power of commercial technology to degrade enemy weapons systems, strengthen intelligence and reconnaissance, and enhance traditional armaments. Forces around the world have already learned this, as exemplified by North Korea’s drone incursions near Seoul and Xi Jinping’s doctrine of military-civil fusion in China. Hamas provided another example on October 7, 2023, when it used commercial quadcopters to strike the generators powering Israeli border towers. Legions of fighters entered Israel, largely undetected, and massacred more than 1,000 people, precipitating the most violent conflict in the region since at least the 1973 Arab-Israeli war.

To the extent that U.S. military and civilian leadership had a strategy for the future of U.S. forces when Putin invaded Ukraine, it was mostly built on existing budgets and old-school weapons. Russia’s deployment of commercial technology has rendered much of that spending obsolete. For example, America’s most advanced tank, the M1A1 Abrams, was recently withdrawn from the front lines because inexpensive Russian drones had proved so effective at destroying them.


But the war has begun to accelerate reform. The U.S. military now has more offices focused on new technology than ever before. A streamlined acquisitions process developed by the DIU called “Other Transaction Authority” has allowed the Pentagon to speed up contracts, and has accounted for more than $70 billion. Earlier this year, Congress massively expanded the DIU’s budget, and the secretary of defense has asked it to carry out one of the Pentagon’s highest-priority initiatives, called Replicator—an effort to develop autonomous systems at sufficient scale to win wars.

The ultimate goal, however, is not to win wars but to deter them. America’s technological genius is one of the best tools it has for keeping the peace. Ukraine shows how our military has failed to take full advantage of that genius—and how far ahead of our competitors we could be if we do.


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