Last fall, as Ukraine retook large swaths of territory in a series of counter-attacks, it bombarded Russian troops with US-made artillery and missiles. Leading some of that artillery was a homemade targeting system Ukraine had developed on the battlefield.
A piece of Ukrainian-made software has turned readily available tablet computers and smartphones into sophisticated targeting tools now widely used in the Ukrainian military.
The result is a mobile app that feeds images from satellites and other intelligence agencies into a real-time aiming algorithm that helps front-line units fire at specific targets. And because it’s an app, not a piece of hardware, it’s easy to update and upgrade quickly, and available to a wide range of personnel.
US officials familiar with the instrument say it has been highly effective in directing Ukrainian artillery fire at Russian targets.
The targeting app is one of dozens of examples of battlefield innovations Ukraine has come up with over nearly a year of war, often finding cheap solutions to expensive problems.
Small, plastic drones, silently buzzing overhead, hurl grenades and other ordinances at Russian troops. 3D printers are now making spare parts so soldiers can repair heavy equipment in the field. Engineers have converted ordinary pickup trucks into mobile rocket launchers. Engineers have figured out how to attach advanced US missiles to older Soviet fighter jets like the MiG-29, keeping Ukraine’s air force aloft after nine months of war.
Ukraine has even developed its own anti-ship weapon, the Neptune, based on Soviet missile designs that can strike the Russian fleet from nearly 200 miles away.
This kind of Ukrainian ingenuity has impressed US officials, who have praised Kiev’s ability to provide “MacGyver” solutions to its battlefield needs that fill important tactical gaps left by the larger, more advanced Western weaponry.
While U.S. and other Western officials don’t always have a perfect grasp of exactly how Ukraine’s bespoke systems work — largely because they’re off the ground — officials and open-source analysts alike say Ukraine has become a veritable battle lab for low-cost but effective solutions.
“Their innovation is just incredibly impressive,” said Seth Jones, director of the international security program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Meanwhile, the war in Ukraine has also provided the United States and its allies with a rare opportunity to study how their own weapons systems perform under heavy use – and what ammunition both sides use to win victories in this hotly contested modern war. US operations officers and other military officials have also been monitoring how successfully Russia has used cheap, expendable, detonating on impact drones supplied by Iran to decimate Ukraine’s power grid.
Ukraine is “definitely a weapons lab in every way, because none of this equipment has ever actually been used in a war between two industrially developed countries,” said a source familiar with Western intelligence. “This is a real-world combat test.”
For the US military, the war in Ukraine is an incredible source of data on the usefulness of its own systems.
Some high-profile systems given to the Ukrainians, such as the Switchblade 300 drone and a missile designed to target enemy radar systems, have proved less effective on the battlefield than expected, according to a US military operations officer with knowledge of the battlefield. , as well as a recent study by a British think tank.
But the lightweight American-made M142 multiple rocket launcher, or HIMARS, has been critical to Ukraine’s success — even as officials have learned valuable lessons about the pace of maintenance repairs these systems require in such heavy use.
How Ukraine has used its limited supply of HIMARS missiles to wreak havoc on Russian command and control, attacking command posts, headquarters and supply depots is an eye opener, a defense official said, adding that military leaders would study it for years .
Another crucial piece of insight is about the M777 howitzer, the powerful artillery that has been a critical part of Ukraine’s battlefield power. But the howitzers’ barrels lose their guns if too many shells are fired in a short period of time, another defense official said, making the artillery less accurate and less effective.
The Ukrainians also made tactical innovations that impressed Western officials. During the first weeks of the war, Ukrainian commanders adapted their operations to deploy small teams of dismounted infantry during the Russian advance on Kiev. Armed with shoulder-mounted Stinger and Javelin missiles, Ukrainian troops could sneak up on Russian tanks with no infantry on their flanks.
The US has also been closely studying the conflict for bigger lessons on how a war between two modern nations might be waged in the 21st century.
The operations officer said one lesson the US can take from this conflict is that towed artillery – such as the M777 howitzer system – may be a thing of the past. Those systems are harder to move quickly to avoid backfire — and in a world of ubiquitous drones and overhead surveillance, “it’s very hard to hide these days,” this person said.
When it comes to lessons learned, “a book needs to be written on this,” said Democratic Representative Jim Himes of Connecticut, a member of the House Intelligence Committee.
US defense contractors have also taken note of the new ability to study – and market – their systems.
BAE Systems has already announced that Russia’s success with their kamikaze drones has influenced the way it designs a new armored fighting vehicle for the military, adding more armor to protect soldiers from attacks from above.
And various parts of the US government and industry have been trying to test new systems and solutions in a fight that Ukraine needed all the help it could get.
In the early days of the conflict, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency sent five high-resolution lightweight surveillance drones to the US Special Operations Command in Europe, in case they came in handy in Ukraine. The drones, made by a company called Hexagon, were not part of a so-called Defense Department program, hinting at the experimental nature of the conflict.
Vice Admiral Robert Sharp, then head of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, even publicly boasted that the US had trained a “military partner” in Europe on the system.
“It allows you to go outside under cloud cover and collect your own stuff [geointelligence] data,” Sharp told CNN last spring on the sidelines of a satellite conference in Denver.
Despite intense efforts by a small group of US officials and outside industry, it remains unclear whether these drones ever made it into combat.
Meanwhile, multiple intelligence and military officials told CNN they hope creating what the U.S. military calls “attributable” drones — low-cost, single-use weapons — has become a top priority for defense contractors.
“I wish we could make a $10,000 one-way drone,” said one of these officials wistfully.