One year on: 10 technologies used in the war in Ukraine
It has been a year since Vladmir Putin ordered Russian troops to begin their illegal invasion of Ukraine, and the impact has been devastating.
So far 100,000 Russian and 13,000 Ukrainian service personnel have been killed, according to Western leaders and Ukraine’s armed forces. And more than 7,000 Ukrainian civilians have died in the last year as a result of war, including at least 400 children, NBC News reports.
Though much of the battle has taken place on the battlefield itself, there has also been a war of technologies, from cyber attacks and disinformation, to the economic impact on the global tech scene.
Tech has also played a vital role in supporting Ukrainians looking to rebuild regained territory or communicate with the outside world.
The impact of the Internet and cyber attacks in the war are unprecedented in speed and scope, with many labelling it the twenty-first century’s “first cyber world war”.
Much has been written about the illegal invasion, cyber dimensions of war, and ensuing geopolitical tensions and impacts, but here TI breaks down 10 key technologies that have been used in the most technologically advanced war that humanity has ever seen.
Russia fired its first shots hours before the physical invasion started with repeated distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks and a cyberweapon made up of a trojan horse wiper malware, which Microsoft identified and named as “FoxBlade”, to attempt to knock out internet connectivity and paralyse Ukraine’s command and control centres. “Reflecting the technology of our time, those among the first to observe the attack were half a world away, working in the United States in Redmond, Washington,” stated a Microsoft report. As for Ukraine’s defence, it has been quick “to disburse its digital infrastructure into the public cloud, where it has been hosted in data centres across Europe”. Microsoft added it had detected Russian network intrusion efforts on 128 organisations in 42 countries outside Ukraine. As Russia launched its invasion, modems of satellite operator Viasat’s KA-SAT network in Europe were also disabled via a cyberattack. Ukraine has partnered with many international tech companies, such as Cloudflare and Microsoft, to try to build resilience in its encryptions and systems.
The Anonymous hacker group quickly declared cyber war on the Russian government in response, whose FSB-created National Coordination Center for Computer Incidents (NCCC) classified the threat level as “critical” as there were reported failures for resources of the Ministry of Defense and the websites of the Kremlin, the government, parliaments, and parts of the Russia Today news agency.
Kyiv-based Olena Lutsenko, Director of RETN Ukraine and Black Sea Region Head, gave an impassioned and insightful presentation at Capacity Europe in October 2022 on how the backbone network provider had been keeping Ukraine connected during the war. Lutsenko had explained how 22% of Ukraine’s fiber network had been damaged or destroyed and 1,350 cyberattacks were registered in the first half of 2022. 2,194 cyberattacks were witnessed in 2022, according to Yuriy Schygol, Head of the State Service for Special Communications and Information Protection of Ukraine, who said seven new types of virus had been identified.
The war in Ukraine has become the most internet-accessible war in history with live updates and videos published through various social media platforms. Ukraine has been able to use social media location to be able to target specific groups of Russian soldiers.
There has been a huge surge in social media activity too as friends and family members post updates and reach out to loved ones to inform them of their safety and whereabouts.
Internet traffic coming back online in areas of Ukraine under Russian occupation have been re-routed to networks owned by the Russian government. Users’ data may be monitored by a Russian government surveillance system known as SORM, while their ability to freely browse the internet may also be restricted, according to Victor Zhora, deputy chief of Ukraine’s Information Protection Service, “stripping our people’s access to true information, making only Russian propaganda available.” Many big tech companies have also taken steps to restrict Russian state-affiliated media outlets from leveraging social media for propaganda and spreading misinformation and to also reduce the visibility of their posts.
At the start of the war, Mykhailo Fedorov, the Minister of Digital Transformation and Vice Prime Minister of Ukraine, tweeted urgent pleas for direct commercial satellite assistance. Elon Musk answered the call to restore the country’s Internet.
5,000 Starlink satellites were initially sent in the days after Russia’s full-scale invasion. Keeping the Internet running has been critical to help Ukraine’s citizens stay connected, but also to aide Ukraine’s defensive coordination. Fedorov said at the time: “This is really the first major war in which commercially available satellite imagery may play a significant role in providing open-source information about troop movements, military build-ups in neighbouring countries, flows of refugees, and more.”
To date, around 25,000 Starlink terminals have been deployed to assist Ukraine’s defence and connectivity efforts. However, Musk’s SpaceX has warned it may take steps to prevent its Starlink satellite communications service from controlling drones, which are critical to Kyiv’s forces in fighting off the Russian invasion, as its service was never intended to be weaponised and to stop any potential strikes on Russian soil.
This comes after Musk warned the Pentagon that the company couldn’t indefinitely pro bono fund Starlink in Ukraine as it was losing $20 million a month from unpaid service and related costs.
Other commercial space companies have assisted Ukraine’s war efforts, predominately focusing on remote sensing and satellite communications. The support they have provided has also been critical in delivering timely intelligence on Russian troop movements and keeping Ukrainian military communications networks operational.
Télécoms Sans Frontières (TSF):
TSF is the world’s first NGO focusing on emergency-response technologies and over the past 25 years, it has entered numerous humanitarian crises to give affected people the possibility to contact loved ones and begin to regain control of their lives, as well as build rapid-response communications centres for local and international responders. In response to the war in Ukraine, TSF teams reached Ukraine’s neighbouring countries to help refugees and also Ukraine itself to support displaced persons in Ukraine, providing emergency telecom equipment. Since the beginning of the conflict, over eight million refugees have left Ukraine seeking refuge and six million are displaced within the country. That represents 32% of Ukraine’s population.
Artillery and missile systems:
This was supposed to be a big year for Stanislav Prybytko’s 11-person Mobile Broadband Department team in Ukraine’s Digital Ministry, which was planning to begin an ambitious effort to move towards 5G technology. Instead, they have spent most of their days trying to navigate a patchwork of basic fixes to restore any workable connection to parts of the country. The conflict has seen Russia’s use of various types of artillery and missile systems, including rocket launchers, howitzers, and ballistic missiles, to shell Ukrainian-held territory and targets. By October 2022, more than 4,000 base stations, 60,000km of fibre-optic lines, and 18 broadcasting antennas had been seized, damaged, or destroyed, according to Ukraine’s Special Communications Service.
Coverage of Ukraine’s success in using US-built Javelin anti-tank munitions has been widespread. Ukrainians are fusing their courageous fighting spirit with the most advanced intelligence and software ever seen in combat. For example, software by US tech company Palantir is assisting most of the Ukrainian military’s targeting of Russian tanks and artillery. Palantir’s software assists targeting by visualising an army’s positions with detailed digital maps taking in feeds from commercial satellites and social media. Thermal imaging technology further enhances the capabilities of digital targeting.
The conflict has seen a significant use of electronic warfare (EW) systems, which are used to disrupt communications, radar systems, and other electronics. In late February, just before Russia invaded, Hawkeye 360 analysts detected GPS interference signals near Ukraine’s border with Belarus, north of Chernobyl, after previously picking up jamming signals across Eastern Europe with commercial satellites that were disrupting unmanned aerial vehicles operating in the Luhansk and Donetsk regions. The Ukrainian military has also used EW systems to jam Russian communications and GPS signals, ensuring that communications infrastructure is still protected.
The war has featured more drone technology than any previously with both sides using unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) for reconnaissance and surveillance. The Ukrainian military has also used drones to target enemy positions with precision-guided munitions.
The most used UAVs by Ukraine are simple, commercial drones, with integrated high-resolution cameras that are paired with smartphones. Soldiers have used them for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance, which puts them one step ahead of the enemy. Forces have also used 3D printers to add tail fins to Soviet-era anti-tank grenades, which have been dropped from these overhead commercial drones.
The Turkish Bayraktar TB2 drone carries laser-guided bombs and targets vehicles, troops and military stations and US-made Switchblade and Russian Lantset are known as “Kamikaze drones”, as they can be carried by a single person in a backpack, and they have the ability to loiter and search for targets; crashing into them and detonating the warhead it carries.
As the use of drones has become more prevalent in the conflict, both sides have also developed counter-drone systems to detect and neutralise enemy UAVs. The Ukrainian military has reportedly used anti-drone systems such as the Turkish-made KARGU drone, which can autonomously track and attack targets.
Consumer technology and applications:
Mobile application and online portal Diia, which was launched in 2020 as a traditional government system used to help renew licensing permits, pay parking tickets, and report potholes, was repurposed to allow civilians to upload images and geolocation coordinates of different Russian military assets or to provide tips about suspicious people who might be collaborators, invaders, or saboteurs.
Secure chat system eVorog (“eEnemy”) was launched in March 2022 and has come to fore allowing civilians to provide multiple reports of different troop movements. This chatbot has turned any Ukrainian civilian with a smartphone into digital resistance fighters as they gather and share military intelligence.
VR & 3D holograms:
To prepare for the conflict, the Ukrainian military has used virtual reality (VR) training systems to simulate combat scenarios and train soldiers in tactics and procedures. This type of training allows soldiers to practice in a safe and controlled environment before deploying to the front lines.
In June 2022, Ukraine’s Prime Minister Volodymyr Zelensky made a 3D holographic broadcast appearance, powered by ARHT Media’s holographic technology, to 200,000 top tech entrepreneurs, investors, and corporate leaders at seven major European tech events. He challenged tech leaders to donate financial and technological resources to begin rebuilding Ukraine. “Ukraine is a chance for a global digital revolution,” he said: “a chance for every technology company and a chance for every visionary to show their value, skills, technologies, and ambitions.”
Artificial intelligence (AI):
Ukraine’s effective use of AI to target Russian forces has pushed the technology from mainly an ethical question to being a top concern high on the agenda of military and political leaders around the world, said Alex Karp, CEO of Palantir. At the recent Dutch government’s Responsible AI in the Military Domain (REAIM) event, he added that Russian forces have been at a “massive disadvantage” due to a lack of AI technologies deployed.
Ukrainian AI company Primer modified its commercial AI-enabled voice transcription and translation service so that it could process intercepted Russian communications and automatically highlight information concerning the Ukrainian forces.
Ukraine has also used advanced AI-based imaging and facial recognition software from Clearview AI to identify deceased Russian personnel through their social media profiles in order to notify their relatives of their deaths and transfer their bodies to the families.
Military experts believe that AI could play a significant role in future conflicts with AI systems predicting enemy movements and analysing large amounts of data to identify potential threats. At the AI Summit London during last year’s London Tech Week, Dr Nikos Loutas, NATO’s head of data and artificial intelligence (AI) policy said: “We are really convinced that ongoing and future conflicts may be won, lost or heavily impacted by AI speed, AI efficacy and who is actually using AI in the battlefield.”
The war in Ukraine has been a testing-ground for new applications. Technology is changing the meaning of war and the war is changing technology by expediting innovation.
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