The war in Ukraine is becoming an invaluable innovation lab for battlefield tactics and Western weapons.
With limited resources, the Ukrainians have proven to be remarkably effective at innovating low-cost military options. Meanwhile, Kyiv’s allies have had an unprecedented opportunity to study how their weapons systems function in a real-life war. The vital lessons learned from this conflict could enhance the strength and efficiency of the U.S. military, providing an additional return on investment that recoups the costs of Ukrainian aid and buttresses the moral case for continued support.
Though Ukraine’s economy is undeveloped, the country has a highly educated citizenry, as well as a robust defense industry and tech sector. Ukrainians have used 3D printers to make small parts for heavy equipment, adapted drones to drop grenades and steal unprotected enemy gear, converted pickup trucks into mobile missile launchers, and strapped sophisticated American missiles onto Soviet-era fighter jets. Ukraine has also been adept at developing software that allows consumer devices to be used for military purposes.
Early in the war, Ukraine created homemade targeting systems which operate on tablets and smartphones and which have been highly effective at directing artillery fire. These systems have been much easier to distribute and update than alternatives that run on specialized hardware. Similarly, after Russia began deploying kamikaze drones last autumn, Ukraine released a mobile phone app that allowed citizens to report and geolocate drone sightings. By empowering citizens to participate in crowd-sourced anti-aircraft defense, Kyiv was able to more quickly piece together the trajectory of incoming drones.
Ukrainian ingenuity has impressed Western defense experts. American officials have found Ukraine’s devastating use of HIMARS missiles to be “eye-opening.” These tactical lessons have been accompanied by new insights into the maintenance needs of heavily-used American hardware. However, other weapons systems have proven to be less effective than expected. For example, it’s now understood that towed artillery cannot be easily hidden from the overhead surveillance of small drones, rendering these systems increasingly obsolete. The use of kamikaze drones has also led American defense contractors to focus on new fighting vehicles with more armor that protects from overhead attacks.
Research and development is never cheap. In 2022, the U.S. Defense Department budgeted $112 billion for R&D. If U.S. aid to Ukraine can incidentally boost U.S. R&D and foster new U.S. military innovations, then it will prove it’s directly beneficial for America, too.
Adam Zivo is a Canadian columnist and policy analyst who relocated to Ukraine earlier this year to report on the Russia-Ukraine war. He is writing a book on how the war is experienced by average Ukrainians.