Gunners on the front line are getting orders from Palantir software. This is what it means for the war 

George Grylls

March 29 2024

The Times


In the early summer of 2022, when the roads to Kyiv were still lined with the carcasses of burnt-out tanks, President Zelensky invited executives from a CIA-linked data-mining company to his bunker in the Ukrainian capital. The company, Palantir, had already been helping Ukraine to defend itself, after an introduction from western allies. Zelensky proposed a deeper relationship, one that would define how Ukraine would fight the war.  “He made a very compelling pitch,” said Louis Mosley, the executive vice-president of Palantir, speaking on what was his 16th visit to Kyiv. “Ukraine was in desperate need of support from the West. They’d identified us as the best ‘miltech’ company in the world and were very eager for access to our technology.”

After a long drive from the Polish border the Palantir team arrived in Kyiv at a time when curfew was still being strictly enforced, and the detritus of war, including dragon’s teeth anti-tank defences, littered the streets. They relied on the goodwill of a UN worker from New Zealand to furnish them with a sandwich after discovering that all the Ukrainian capital’s restaurants were shut. “People in Kyiv had the look as if they’d had a close shave, a near-death experience. When you talked to government officials, they looked traumatised. They’d been hours away, frankly, from losing everything: their lives, their families,” Mosley said.

Conceived in the aftermath of 9/11 and launched in 2003, Palantir is now valued at about $54 billion (£42.8 billion). It was co-founded by a group of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs including Peter Thiel, the billionaire investor, former donor to Donald Trump and JRR Tolkien fan, and his Stanford University classmate, Alex Karp, an avowed socialist, t’ai chi expert and doctor of German philosophy.

Palantir was named after the crystal balls that feature in The Lord of the Rings. Its first clients included the NSA, the FBI and the CIA, the latter investing through its In-Q-Tel venture fund.

Adopting a strongly pro-western stance, Palantir caught the world’s attention when its technology was rumoured to have been used to locate Osama bin Laden. But it is in Ukraine, where it has been used in conjunction with Elon Musk’s Starlink, whose satellites have kept Ukrainian soldiers connected to the internet, that it has arguably had the most impact, helping a much smaller army hold its own against a world power, prompting wider questions about the use of AI in war.  “Are these things dangerous? Yes,” said Karp, Palantir’s chief executive, last year. “But either we will wield them or our adversaries will.”

Palantir’s software — which was adopted by Dominic Cummings in No 10 during the coronavirus pandemic, leading to a £330 million contract being signed with the NHS last year — is deceptively simple. By crunching huge amounts of data, the firm provides Ukrainian commanders with a complete view of the battlefield, from warships sailing in the Black Sea, to tanks rolling across the Donbas to fighter jets launching cruise missiles from the air.

The aim is for Kyiv to make quick decisions, allowing it to outperform the top-down Soviet-era bureaucracy of the Russian army. Despite some initial nervousness about sharing such powerful algorithms, Palantir appears to have found an ideal partner in Ukraine, a country renowned for its flourishing tech scene. “Before the war, Ukraine had become something of an outsourcing shop for western tech companies,” Mosley said. “When Russia invaded, not only did you have this highly

technical population with amazing engineers, but they were also broadly familiar with western software. It’s amazing how many people you find who used to work for Google in Mountain View [California].”

More than a thousand members of the Ukrainian armed forces, stationed in brigade headquarters across the country, are using Palantir’s software. The company has half a dozen staff based permanently in Ukraine, their MacBooks adorned with stickers of Patron, Ukraine’s ubiquitous mine-sniffing dog, and Javelin-wielding raccoons, a reference to the animals stolen by Russian troops from the Kherson zoo.  “There’s a Bletchley Park element to it. You get your best and brightest and put them in uniform in headquarters,” said Mosley. “You don’t want your nerds in the trenches.”

Palantir’s software uses AI to speed up traditional military decision-making. At the heart of this is MetaConstellation, a program which allows Ukraine to build a detailed picture of what the Russians are up to.

Hundreds of commercial satellites orbiting the Earth every day take photos of the Russian forces but MetaConstellation picks out the most useful, detailed images, often using synthetic aperture radar (SAR) to see through clouds to capture troop build-ups or ship movements. Originally developed for the war on terror, the software has learnt the geography of the Ukrainian steppe and the Black Sea as intimately as it knows the landscapes of Afghanistan and Iraq.

The insights gleaned from these photos are then layered with additional information, such as informants’ tips on the movements of enemy troops or clues provided by intercepted intelligence.

The resultant map of Ukraine is displayed in Gaia, a software roughly equivalent to the table-top miniature battlefields used by First World War generals to shunt around troops, albeit in the form of a live feed on a computer screen. Ukrainian commanders can identify which part of the front line may need more shells, where air defences could be most effective, and receive alerts on significant movements of enemy forces, be they planes, tanks or ships.

Based on these calculations, each unit of the Ukrainian army can then be directed to its most effective contribution to the war that day. A team of artillery gunners in Donbas might be told how many shells to shoot, at which grid co-ordinates, at what time of day — often unaware that their orders have been informed by AI. “The Ukrainians have more targets than they have ammunition, so prioritising the targets is very important,” Mosley said.

Finally, the success or failure of the mission is analysed in Dossier, an analogue to Microsoft’s PowerPoint which updates itself automatically. “What happened to militaries at the end of the 20th century is they all became Powerpoint-based,” said Mosley. “Commanders were presented with endless Powerpoints. But when they asked a question someone had to scurry back and amend the presentation. That process takes days, weeks, months.”

Palantir originally worked for Ukraine pro bono, but the West began subsidising its work last year — so important was its technology considered for the war effort. Now the company has expanded to all corners of the Ukrainian government, working on everything from agricultural mine clearance to building bomb shelters for schools. One of Palantir’s most interesting projects has been helping the country to unearth and investigate war crimes.

Due to the spread of satellites and smartphones, the war in Ukraine is believed to be the most documented conflict in history. By using Palantir’s AI to sift through reams of photos, videos and witness testimonies, the Ukrainian chief prosecutor has recorded details of an astonishing 124,000 potential crimes. “When we work with such a great number of cases, we can’t investigate and prosecute them manually,” said Andriy Kostin, speaking in his wood-panelled office in Kyiv.

Kostin explained how the technology can match a rape investigation in Bucha with a similar incident that occurred near Kharkiv, allowing investigators to find the alleged perpetrators and build a case faster than any human could. “The system can find links between the same types of crimes committed on different territories. Could it be by the same military units? Different military units? It helps us to establish patterns and go up the chain of command,” Kostin said.

Outside of Ukraine, Palantir’s octopus-like grip on multiple areas of government has been criticised by privacy campaigners, concerned about the implications of a multibillion-dollar private company managing public data.

The company has also been under fire recently, not least from its own staff, over a deal struck with the Israel Defence Forces to supply technology for the war in Gaza. Karp has been staunchly pro-Israel since the Hamas terrorist attacks of October 7, taking out a full-page advert in The New York Times to express Palantir’s solidarity with the country and holding the company’s first board meeting of 2024 in Tel Aviv. “We’ve lost employees. I’m sure we’ll continue to lose employees,” Karp told CNBC this month as he reiterated his support.

But in Ukraine the American company is treasured as a close partner and one whose value increases even as the Republicans stall on a new $60 billion aid package. As Kyiv runs low on ammunition, it becomes increasingly essential that every remaining shell, rocket and missile finds its target.

Having invested significantly in the struggle, Palantir knows that its other contributions — de-mining fields, reopening schools, prosecuting rapists — could come to naught if Ukraine does not prevail. “The core of it is still the military work,” said Mosley. “Victory is a precondition for justice, reconstruction and everything else.”


George Grylls covers defence and politics for The Times. He won the Anthony Howard Award for Young Journalists in 2019.

George Grylls, 24, won the prize with a proposal to investigate the rise of the YouTube politician. He wrote: “We know that Twitter is Donald Trump’s platform of choice, yet very little study has been dedicated to the way in which political voices and beliefs are cultivated for the YouTube generation.” Jacob Rees-Mogg, Tommy Robinson, Nigel Farage, James O’Brien, Jess Phillips and John Bercow were among those he believed owed political success to YouTube. “In an age of weak leaders, these voices have swayed the debate. Politics currently favours firmly-held beliefs that are aggressively defended, in part, I would argue, because they are most easily editable into short online clips.”  His £21,600 prize will see him undertake two fellowships over the course of 10 months at the New Statesman and The Times, beginning in October. These titles now sponsor the award, taking over from Haymarket Media, which supported the award for five years after it was established by its founder, Lord Heseltine, in memory of his lifelong friend, the editor, political journalist and commentator Anthony Howard