The Russian invasion of Ukraine has become a test bed for theories about the conduct of modern warfare, and one of the mostly hotly debated topics has been the role of technology in contemporary military operations. Much commentary has been understandably focused on the lack of cyber effect operations or the value of those conducted and while that is indeed an important question related to digitized warfare, it has also obscured the importance of digital technology generally for Ukraine’s resistance to the Russian invasion.
Two very critical examples of other digitized aspects that have had vast consequences for the war center on intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities and the use of information warfare. The first has not only allowed Ukraine to strike back at Russian units, especially with unmanned platforms, but also allowed NATO forces to share critical data with Ukraine to help plan its defense. The digitalization of national intelligence systems has made it possible for NATO to more effectively support Ukraine’s efforts with intelligence sharing. Just as importantly, we have seen Ukraine use cyberspace and the information environment to empower its outreach to the world and craft a cohesive narrative about the conflict, leading to far more support in Europe and the United States. This combination of improved intelligence collection and sharing as well as the ability to quickly and easily message battlefield success concretely demonstrates the power of digital capabilities and indicates a fundamental truth: yes, we need to think deeply about the revolutionary ways that technology will alter the conduct of warfare, but we also need to consider the seemingly mundane but collectively impactful evolutionary ways it will change existing functions.
An especially formidable use of technology in the conflict has been the collection and dissemination of intelligence by both Ukrainian forces as well as NATO and other countries sympathetic to it. Ukraine has made its own capabilities the star of the show as it plans its tactical operations. Good intelligence has been key to Ukrainian forces’ frequent ambushes, effective use of antitank weapons, and selective targeting of ammunition depots—all of which require careful preparation and accurate knowledge about the location and composition of enemy forces to be effective.
One of the most publicized aspects of Ukrainian intelligence collection is the extensive use of intercepts of Russian communications. To be sure, this has been enabled in part by a lack of usable encrypted communications that has driven Russian commanders to use less secure methods of communication. But the quick dissemination of intelligence gleaned from these conversations within the Ukrainian military has been a significant contributor to decapitation strikes against Russian commanders.
This is also an enabler for the use of drones. Much has been made of Ukraine’s use of Turkish-made Bayraktar TB-2 drones, which are notably less expensive than other platforms with similar precision-strike capabilities. In this regard, the war in Ukraine carries on a trend observed in the 2022 Nagorno-Karabakh War, during which Azerbaijan’s use of TB-2 drones was a key factor in the outcome of the war. But Ukraine’s military has gone a step further, incorporating commercial, off-the-shelf platforms like quadcopters into its improvised fleet of unmanned aircraft, both for kinetic strikes and, crucially, reconnaissance. This shows that it is possible to effectively use inexpensive unmanned systems even in contested airspace, if the intelligence apparatus to support them is maintained.
But critically, Ukraine has not been alone in this aspect of the conflict: it has been able to lean upon existing NATO capabilities honed by years of conflict against insurgents to gain an additional advantage when facing a more conventional war. The alliance has supplied vast troves of raw information from the Alliance Ground Surveillance program, airborne early warning and control systems, and satellite imagery as well as intelligence analysis in order to aid Ukraine’s efforts. While these platforms are not necessarily digital themselves, the collection, analysis, and, most crucially, intelligence dissemination have been sped up through digitalization.
The digital revolution has also created new players in the hunt for intelligence that Ukraine has taken advantage of: commercial satellite companies and open-source intelligence provided by private citizens. Nearly a quarter century ago, analysts were already grappling with the policy implications of commercial imaging satellites, and since then both the number and quality have increased dramatically. While they remain outclassed by those that governments put into orbit, they are nonetheless producing observable operational and even strategic effects. This makes such tools especially important for states like Ukraine that lack the space capabilities that the United States, Russia, or China possess. Ukraine has used images provided by Maxar and BlackSky in order to help it document damage and identify Russian units, augmenting the trove of satellite images it has received from sympathetic governments.
Open-source reporting has also been a boon to Ukraine’s military planning in the war as people post images of Russian troop movements or unit composition. Even the most cursory search on Twitter produces hundreds of images and videos posted by ordinary citizens in Ukraine. In many cases, private citizens even seek to analyze the information themselves and share that with the Ukrainian government. To be sure, this cannot be said to be unique, and that is precisely why it is important. This is a pattern that has been borne out in previous conflicts in Syria as well as the famous bin Laden raid live tweet and is rapidly becoming a standard feature of war and one that is not owned by a particular side. With such an explosion of information that can be recovered through digital means, it seems that the limiting factor of intelligence is likely to be on the analysis, rather than the collection, side.
It’s About Sending a Message
Digital capabilities do not only have military applications though. They are also very useful as tools of international politics and public diplomacy. The United States, the United Kingdom, and France all publicized their intelligence assessments before the Russian invasion in an attempt to change Russian behavior, prepare Ukraine for battle, and influence global public opinion to varying degrees of success. The true value of these efforts and the others that have continued to be publicized as the war has progressed is hard to fully judge, but it is now possible, in many respects due to digital technology and effective policies for utilizing it, to obtain, collate, analyze, and disseminate intelligence assessments to a global audience nearly in real time.
But as with intelligence collection Ukraine is not a passive receiver of Western help, the Ukrainian government is also leveraging information and digital platforms to craft a narrative and bring it to national and global audiences. The Ukrainian government has seen success in using digital platforms in order to buoy the morale of its own people, give its account of the progress of the war, and actively liaise with other governments. Digital technology allowed President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to make personal speeches to foreign legislative bodies to build international support, while simultaneously remaining in Kyiv to maintain morale and symbolically demonstrate Ukraine’s ability to withstand a Russian onslaught. Time and again, digital outreach by Zelenskyy has been met with increased aid and concrete proposals for support. In effect, Zelenskyy can conclusively be shown to have shaped the information war using digital technology to obtain tangible warfighting resources.
These information warfare efforts have been particularly successful at not only countering Russian disinformation in Ukraine, Europe, and the United States, but seizing the initiative in the information fight from the very beginning of the war. Prior to Russia’s invasion, the general consensus was that Russia had an unmatched ability to pollute discourses and information spaces in service to its own goals. Similar to predictions about Russian military power, this assessment has proven to be far from the truth. Through the deft mixture of digital and traditional media Ukraine has created a strong narrative that reinforces Ukrainians’ confidence in their own government and bolsters support for it in other countries.
Combat Evolved, Not Revolutionized
The digital revolution has long spawned predictions of some future form of warfare whose essence is entirely digital. But while that hypothetical form remains beyond the horizon and out of sight, the digital revolution has affected existing and more traditional warfighting functions; there remain very few platforms or processes in militaries around the world that are entirely untouched by it. But these are important precisely because they exemplify just how much of the vast changes to warfare are mundane in nature. Similar to other military innovations, digitalization has been seen as something that will fundamentally change the character of warfare. A common example is cyber effect operations. The hype would have us believe that Russia would be able to disable antiair systems, ground planes, shut off power to vast swaths of Ukraine, and even stop weapons from firing. But this has not happened. We have not moved demonstrably closer to battles occurring in cyberspace instead of physical space. To be sure, there have been reports of cyber operations being carried out as part of the war including wiper attacks and knocking out satellites, but these have lacked any persistent effect and have been generally superseded in importance by conventional military operations. Likewise, despite calls to use cyber effect operations as a method of support for Ukraine from the West, such operations, conducted at scale, have not materialized in the way some people expected and the threat of their use has not meaningfully affected the course of the war; clearly these tools are not as suited to shaping events during wartime as theorized.
Instead, the war in Ukraine should force us to focus on the more mundane value of technology in modern conflict. Instead of a revolution in military affairs, technology is driving a slow evolution. Cyber-enabled network capabilities have created vast new troves of information and made it much more easily accessible, and the ability to quickly assemble materials from disparate sources and move them across the world has massive implications for strategic thinking, operational planning, and tactical success, especially if backed by the interoperable capabilities of allies. These collection and analysis capabilities are worth investing in. Some of them, such as improved cyber-espionage capabilities and satellite imagery, receive plenty of funding and this has paid dividends. But the budget has not been so kind to air-based assets such as the E-3 Sentry and this war has shown just how undesirable it would be to lose a source of intelligence that could mean the difference between Russian air superiority (as was expected) and contested airspace. A key component of the success of the intelligence collection operations has been the broad spectrum of information that can be pulled from: it is not a single piece of information that is the deciding factor, but rather a picture composed of many parts.
This war has shown that we should think more broadly about the role of technology in warfare. It is not just about blinding satellites, shutting off weapons, and unleashing disinformation on social media. Cyber capabilities can have significant value in international relations, especially when they relate to espionage, but they are not the be-all and end-all of digital technology’s use in war. Using digital technology to enhance existing intelligence collection capabilities offers significant return on investment, helping prevent strategic surprise and powering tactical success. It can also build information narratives that provide tangible results that can be helped along by deploying technology in the right places in the right ways. Information warfare is not just about flooding online spaces with sock puppets and bots. It is also about using the tools at your disposal to build the narratives you need for the goals you have. These technological capabilities are worth funding (in the case of intelligence platforms) and perfecting (in the case of information warfare tactics). We can’t let the ambitious promises of new military capabilities and technologies like cyber effect operations and artificial intelligence distract us from the value of the tools we already have but do not properly invest in or understand.
Michael Depp is a junior fellow and program coordinator at the Observer Research Foundation America where he focuses on the future of technology. His research interests include the effects of emerging technology on international competition and the role that digital technology plays in military conflict.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.
Image credit: Master Sgt. Barry Loo, US Air Force