May 25, 2023
Recent fighting in Ukraine has been characterized by a regression to older forms and even older modes of fighting. The struggle for Bakhmut has devolved into World War I-style trench warfare. Facing deep materiel attrition, Russia has pressed 1950s-era tanks back into service. Building-by-building, floor-by-floor firefights have prompted comparisons to the Nazi-Soviet battle for Stalingrad.
And yet, the war also bears the hallmarks of future, digital warfare. Soldiers go into combat armed with tablets and cellphones that provide vital situational awareness. Small commercial and purpose-built drones pervade the airspace, hunting for targets of opportunity. Portable satellite ground stations play cat-and-mouse with uplink jammers, fighting for decisive battlefield connectivity.
In this digital war, software is king. While it exists in the digital realm, software defines the terms of engagement between physical hardware on the battlefield. The side with superior software can make better, faster decisions, and both Ukraine and Russia have demonstrated that they have the capacity for deploying technology on the battlefield in creative and effective ways. Yet, this dependence on software comes at a cost. Computer systems in the battlespace are vulnerable to cyberattack. A software offense must therefore be secured with a strong cyber defense.
Ukraine has been able to field a software offense and the necessary cyber defenses thanks to long-term investments it made in its information technology sector following Russia’s 2014 invasion of Crimea. While the contest for digital superiority is far from over, Ukraine’s innovations may give the country a critical edge against an adversary that often outguns it.
“Uber for Artillery”
Today, Ukraine’s software offense is perhaps best embodied by a software package called Geographic Information System Art for Artillery (“GIS Arta” for short). A GIS is any computer software used to depict and manipulate geographic data. GISs are in use across numerous industries and sectors. For example, popular mobile navigation app Google Maps is a GIS. GIS Arta weaves together disparate targets, sensors, and artillery units into an “Uber for artillery.” Uber uses algorithms to optimize across riders, positions, and traffic to assign trips to drivers in a given geographic area. GIS Arta uses an algorithm to optimize across variables like target type, position, and range to assign “fire missions” to available artillery units. Users connect to GIS Arta using phones, laptops, and tablets connected to military radios, cellphones, or the Starlink satellite internet system.
Artillery units connect to the network and mark themselves open for “jobs” in much the same way that Uber drivers make themselves available for potential rides in a phone app. A graphical interface with touch capability allows users to select targets, after which artillery batteries within range are highlighted for fire missions. The time from target acquisition to fire mission can be as little as 30 to 45 seconds. Information in GIS Arta is sourced from drones, targets reported by forward observers armed with cell phones, counter battery radars, and satellite-based imagery. GIS Arta even embeds information like munition suitability into its targeting process. For example, a mortar team can be assigned to attack personnel in the open, or an artillery unit can be assigned to attack a vehicle target. With GIS Arta, multiple guns in different locations can be brought to bear on the same target all at once.
GIS Arta allows for the dynamic employment and deployment of Ukrainian artillery on the battlefield. Ukraine’s batteries can displace, or “shoot and scoot,” setting up, firing, and moving on again from one location to the next within minutes rather than hours. This reduces the opportunities Russia has to engage in devastating counter battery fire. (Of note, Ukraine is likely playing a similar game of cat-and-mouse to protect its Patriot batteries around Kyiv in the face of attack by Russian hypersonic missiles.) GIS Arta also allows Ukraine to overcome a significant artillery hardware disadvantage. On some parts of the front line, Russian artillery outnumbers Ukrainian hardware 20 to one. GIS Arta acts as a “force multiplier,” increasing the effectiveness of each given artillery unit by enabling them to take on more targets, more accurately, and with less time and risk.
GIS Arta is, at its core, an application like any other found on a common smartphone or computer. Like Uber or Google Maps, it needs infrastructure and human capital to sustain it. Human developers write and maintain its code. They also build and maintain the networked systems it lives on. With multiple users spread across a vast physical and cyber space, GIS Arta has many points of entry that must be secured. Like any smartphone or computer application, it is vulnerable to cyber threats and must be updated on a continuous basis to maintain its integrity. Ukraine has built an ecosystem capable of developing and protecting software like GIS Arta thanks to a concerted, long-term investment in its information technology sector.
A Thriving Information Economy
In the years since the 2014 Russian invasion of Crimea, Ukraine recognized that software can be a force multiplier in a time of national peril. With this in mind, Ukraine’s government has enabled a thriving IT sector that has become a hub of technological dynamism in Europe.
Internet connectivity in Ukraine is loosely regulated, high-speed, and among the cheapest in the world. Ukraine is home to 300,000 tech workers, 5,000 IT companies, and 1,400 startups. While the 2020 COVID lockdown contracted Ukrainian GDP by 4.4 percent and exports by 4.6 percent, a thriving IT sector weathered the pandemic, seeing exports increase by 20.4 percent in the same time period. All told, IT sector exports increase about 27 percent annually on average, growing faster than any other Ukrainian good or service. These information technology services—the development, operation, and maintenance of complex software systems and computer networks—are the beating heart that keep software packages like GIS Arta up-to-date and running in the face of cyber threats.
Indeed, Ukraine's IT ecosystem has been battle-hardened by years of fending off cyber infiltration by Russian threat actors. Despite its frequent missteps in waging the war since February 2022, Russia’s formidable cyber capabilities remain a serious threat. In December 2015, for example, a Russian cyberattack took out a portion of Ukraine’s power grid. It was the first-ever known successful cyberattack on a power infrastructure system. A similar attack in 2016 led to a partial shutdown of the grid in Kyiv.
In response to these incursions, the Ukrainian government made significant investments in cybersecurity infrastructure and institutions. Ukraine has also developed relationships with both government and corporate cybersecurity partners. Further moves included backing up government data in overseas cloud infrastructure to protect from physical or cyber destruction and deploying hunt teams to government data centers to track down Russian cyber incursions. Organizationally, institutions like the State Service for Special Communications and Information Protection act as coordinators and clearinghouses of information for civilian and government actors alike, keeping users appraised of Russian activities and the latest threat vectors. The body is also active abroad, where it engages in cyber diplomacy in international fora like NATO, providing the latest intelligence and threat analysis on Russian cyber capabilities.
In the run-up to the 2022 invasion, analysts predicted that any action on the ground would be supported by a widespread offensive in cyberspace, with software playing a key role in shutting down both Ukrainian infrastructure and the nation’s ability to resist the initial invasion. Instead, Russia has struggled to gain the cyber footholds necessary to break Ukraine. Russia has not achieved any decisive cyber victories since its initial attacks, despite its ongoing cyber activity. This could be partly attributed to the intense international pressure on its IT sector.
In contrast to Ukraine’s IT sector boom, Russia has found itself increasingly frozen out of the hardware and software ecosystems that could enable its offensive cyber capabilities. It has also seen a flight of IT talent abroad. About 100,000 IT workers—ten percent of its workforce—have fled Russia. The large-scale military mobilization has pushed IT workers to join other educated and affluent citizens in fleeing the country, which has drained the pool of IT professionals from which Russia’s cybercriminal and government cyberespionage organizations recruit. That said, Russia is also innovating digital technologies for use on Ukrainian battlefields, both to sharpen the effectiveness of its arms and to counter Ukraine’s strategies.
Russia’s Digital Arsenal
Ukraine has been experimenting with digital technologies to gain an edge over Russia, but this does not mean that Russia has been complacent or ceded the contest. Russia has built on its artillery advantage by using clever techniques to locate and destroy Ukrainian artillery units. For example, by using several smartphones distributed in the field that relay data to a central tablet, Russian forces can record the sound of artillery fire and use audio triangulation to pinpoint its source, following up with a devastating barrage of return fire. This method is based on an old principle from World War I, but with a modern twist. Likewise, Russian forces are reportedly using an app called Alpine Quest GPS to plan and execute their attacks on Ukrainian positions around Bakhmut. According to Ukrainian sources, Russian commanders use the software to locate Ukrainian equipment, plan attack routes, and coordinate assignments with nearby units. In addition to demonstrating a capacity to deploy new digital technologies in the field, this also suggests that Russia’s GLONASS satellite navigation system still hasn’t proven out for real-time artillery operations.
Russia also retains an advantage when it comes to electronic warfare (EW). While the initial days of the invasion saw a surprising deficiency of Russia’s formidable EW capabilities, the more gridlocked fighting of the last half year has enabled Russian forces to deploy systems that jam Ukrainian radar and block communications links. This has interfered with Ukraine’s capacity to operate its drone force, including Turkish-made Bayraktar TB2s. Jamming GPS signals has also made it harder for Ukraine to operate the small, consumer-grade quadcopters that have played such a pivotal role in reconnaissance, artillery spotting, and targeted grenade drops.
In short, while it can be tempting to view Ukraine’s fight as a David versus Goliath triumph of brains over brawn, this contest is still far from over. Ukraine has successfully leveraged its technical strengths to build a “startup” army that runs on tools like GIS Arta, but it would be a mistake to mark Russia down for the count.
The Startup Army
The developer behind GIS Arta is emblematic of Ukraine’s homegrown, can-do startup culture. In 2013, Yaroslav Sherstyuk found himself serving as an artillery officer in a Ukrainian brigade. At the time, the self-taught software developer used his spare time to write ArtOS, a ballistic calculator that allowed artillery commanders to develop firing solutions quickly based on known ranges and weather conditions. He released a version of the program with smartphone compatibility, and it quickly became popular among artillery crews. Sherstyuk took ArtOS off the Android app store when Russia invaded Crimea in 2014, and the Ukrainian military started distributing it officially to artillery units that were fighting the Russian incursion. GIS Arta evolved directly from this software.
Today, GIS Arta joins a suite of homegrown Ukrainian warfighting apps on the battlefield. With names like ComBat Vision, MilChat, and Delta, these apps act as force multipliers, allowing the Ukrainian military to overcome its quantitative disadvantages against the Russian force by providing high-quality information about the battlefield. In attritional warfare of the sort underway in Bakhmut, information about the status and location of one’s own forces and the enemy’s is a crucial advantage.
This software has become the envy of Western military forces, with one Ukrainian artillery officer noting that “the Americans are impressed.” For decades, the United States in particular has pursued so-called “network-centric” military applications that coordinate command and control across multiple systems and services. The most recent of these ventures, Joint All-Domain Command and Control, is struggling under the weight of its sheer complexity and has seen its share of setbacks, difficulties, and vulnerabilities.
Across multiple fronts, Ukraine has been gearing up for months for a major counter-offensive against Russian forces. One of the key capabilities in its arsenal will be software. By adopting software-defined warfare, Ukraine has gained an edge in two areas where Russia was thought to have a decisive superiority: artillery and cyberwarfare. Ukrainian artillery delivers devastating blows against Russian forces despite a numerical disadvantage. Ukraine has been able to weather Russian cyber threats thanks to a thriving and innovative IT sector. As the counter-offensive approaches, only time will tell whether Ukraine or Russia will build on their relative capabilities to change facts on the ground in the conflict.