February 22 2023
The troop unit in the Ukrainian trenches facing the border knew a lot about the Russians on the other side. It had its observation posts in the forest, manned by spotters with night-vision goggles. They had just had a dramatic encounter with a six-strong Russian infiltration team, ambushing and killing two of them. It had three Mavic 3s, cheap photographer’s drones bought off Amazon, with which every Ukrainian brigade is now well supplied, sending them loitering over the Russian lines.
The unit’s division also had A1-CM Furias, an advanced military drone with much longer range and endurance that was developed in Ukraine. It was a Furia that had allowed the unit two days beforehand to witness a build up of Russian forces well behind the frontier, and target a howitzer with a crew of 11 troops that was being brought into position almost four miles away. “The speed of decision making means we can react quickly,” said the lieutenant in charge of the unit, who gave his codename as Pianist. “Officers in charge receive information in real time.”
What was startling about his comments was how mundane this seemed to him. Yet by these men’s own accounts, it was revolutionary. “In 2014, there might be three drones for an entire division covering 40 miles of front,” said another soldier, an army veteran, talking about his experience when Russian troops first occupied parts of eastern Ukraine. “Now every small unit has three of their own.”
The way the Ukraine war has played out in the year since it began has shocked everyone: except, perhaps, the Ukrainian armed forces themselves and the British and American troops who had trained them in advance.
President Putin, and many of Ukraine’s own supporters in the West, thought the Russian army would sweep aside any resistance. But while the Russians seized large parts of the south and east, when it came to open combat on the approaches to Kyiv and later around the cities of Kharkiv and Kherson it was the Ukrainians who gained the upper hand.
One reason military analysts and old soldiers give is Ukrainian morale, with Kyiv’s troops having a clearer sense of what they are fighting for. But the other is undoubtedly the quality of intelligence available to the two sides.
It is not just drones. Ukrainian commanders in the field have been able to see in real time information coming from a range of sources that would have been unimaginable just a decade ago: military satellites and secret agents, but also commercial satellite feeds, amateur drones, “crowd-sourced” information sent in by mobile phone from volunteer “spies” behind Russian lines, intercepted mobile phone calls, and the vast output of Twitter, Facebook and other social media accounts. “The conflict in Ukraine can in some ways be viewed as the first digital war,” General Sir James Hockenhull, the head of UK Strategic Command and a career intelligence officer, said in a briefing to analysts in November. “Much of that digital capability is coming from commercially available services rather than necessarily traditional military capabilities.”
Russia, of course, is not ignorant of the use of drones, and has pioneered the use of both cyberwarfare and disinformation warfare. The difference on the battlefield seems to be that Moscow regards these tools as separate from day-to-day military operations. This may be due to the fact that Putin and many of his advisers have a background in the old Soviet-era KGB, with its obsession with information control.
The modern Ukrainian army also has roots in the Soviet era, but its officers have more recently been trained in the West, giving them a double advantage. “They had been trained in the Soviet model, so they went in knowing the Russian playbook,” said Philip Davies, a professor of intelligence studies at Brunel University London. “But since 2014 they have been trained by particularly the UK and the US, and we have been working out how to fight the Russian playbook since 1945.”
The Ukrainians have combined their Nato training with advanced technology, some provided by their backers, and their own innovations to collate the flood of secret and open-source information into intelligence immediately useful to troops on the ground.
Some key skills were developed by western generals in the war in Afghanistan, and honed in the US-led fight against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. Kurdish fighters in the battle for Raqqa, for example, showed journalists what looked like military-grade iPads equipped with military-grade Google Earth imagery.
When their advance was held up by Isis fighters in an apartment block, they could just tap the map — and a coalition missile armed with the relevant co-ordinates would take out the block within minutes.
In Ukraine, the imagery goes in the opposite direction — Russia is fighting the war in a less obviously suicidal way than Isis — but the principle is the same. Ukrainian commanders on the ground, especially those in charge of artillery, receive co-ordinates sourced from a geolocated image which is then used as a target.
Nor is it just images: Russian units have been located by tracing calls back home made by their soldiers, who regularly use insecure mobile phones. In other cases, Russian artillery has been tracked by Ukrainian civilian volunteers with mobile phones behind Russian lines, at great personal risk to themselves.
One downside is the overwhelming amount of information available. This is one area where western-provided technology has certainly been of assistance. “We’re seeing artificial intelligence used alongside commercial software applications to increase the speed of action,” Hockenhull said, obliquely.
That may be a reference to the reported gift by the US to Kyiv of MetaConstellation, a system devised by the American cyber company and defence contractor Palantir which uses artificial intelligence to collate satellite information in quick time.
Intelligence is not the only thing that matters in war. Russia has traditionally relied on its willingness to take losses in higher numbers than its adversaries, which may yet be vital in the Ukraine conflict.
High-tech equipment and digital skills are also not always necessary when your enemy is so careless about its own security, Davies pointed out. He said that there had been stories about Americans providing the Ukrainians with intelligence to target the many Russian generals and colonels who had been killed, but there was a simpler explanation. “If a command post looks like a Soviet command post, and you can identify it with a GoPro camera, you don’t need satellites,” he said. “And in that case, it’s not surprising there’s often a commander inside.”