How did Ukraine become a laboratory for Western weapons and innovations on the battlefield?

(CNN) — Last fall, as Ukraine recaptured swathes of territory in a series of counterattacks, it bombarded Russian forces with US-made artillery and missiles. Some of this artillery is directed by indigenous targeting systems developed by Ukraine on the battlefield.

Ukrainian-made software has turned tablets and phones into advanced targeting tools that are now widely used across the Ukrainian military.

The result is a mobile application that feeds satellite imagery and other intelligence into a real-time targeting algorithm that helps units near the front lines direct aircraft to designated targets. And because it’s a mobile app rather than a piece of hardware, it’s easy to update and upgrade quickly, and is widely available to soldiers.

U.S. officials with knowledge of the tool said it was highly effective in directing Ukrainian artillery fire on Russian targets.

The phone app is one of dozens of examples of battlefield innovations Ukraine has come up with in about a year of war, often finding solutions to expensive problems.

Small plastic drones buzzing softly and dropping grenades and other munitions on Russian forces. 3D printers are now making spare parts, and they can repair heavy equipment in the field.

Technicians converted pickup trucks into portable rocket launchers. Engineers discovered a way to connect advanced American missiles to Soviet planes such as the MiG-29, to help keep the Ukrainian Air Force flying for up to 9 months of the war.

Ukraine developed its own anti-ship weapon, the Neptune, based on a Soviet missile design that could target the Russian Navy from 100 miles away.

This Ukrainian ingenuity astonished U.S. officials, who praised Kyiv’s capabilities and battlefield-saving solutions that bridge important tactical gaps left by larger, more sophisticated Western weaponry.

While U.S. and other Western officials don’t always have insight into how custom-made systems work in Ukraine — largely because they’re not on the ground — both officials and open-source analysts say Ukraine has become a veritable war laboratory for cheap but effective solutions. .

“Their innovation is incredibly impressive,” said Seth Jones, director of the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

How did Ukraine become a laboratory for Western weapons and innovations on the battlefield?
Credit: JAM STA ROSA/AFP via Getty Images

Real world battle test

Meanwhile, the war in Ukraine also provided the United States and its allies with a rare opportunity to study how their weapons systems perform under heavy use — and what munitions both sides are using to achieve victories in this fiercely fought modern war. U.S. operations officers and other military officials have also tracked Russia’s use of cheap, expendable, explosive-on-impact drones provided by Iran to destroy Ukraine’s power grid.

Ukraine is “definitely a weapons laboratory in every sense of the word because none of this equipment has ever been used in a war between two industrially advanced countries. This is a real-world battle test,” said one source familiar with Western intelligence.

For the US military, the war in Ukraine has been an amazing source of data on the usefulness of its own systems.

Some notable systems given to the Ukrainians — such as the Switchblade 300 drone and a missile designed to target enemy radar systems — have turned out to be less effective on the battlefield than expected, according to a US military operations officer familiar with the battlefield, as well as a recent study by a British think tank.

But the US M142 Lightweight Multiple Rocket Launcher, or HIMARS, was crucial to Ukraine’s success — even as officials learned valuable lessons about the rate of maintenance repair these systems required under such heavy use.

The way Ukraine used its limited supply of HIMARS missiles to wreak havoc on Russian command and control, striking command posts, headquarters and supply depots, was astounding, a defense official said, adding that military leaders would be studying this for years.

Another important part of the experience was around the powerful cannons which were an important part of the battlefield force in Ukraine. Another US military official said that howitzer barrels lose their accuracy if too many rounds are fired in a short period of time, making 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 employ small divisions of dismounted infantry during the Russian advance on Kyiv. Armed with shoulder-mounted Stinger and Javelin missiles, Ukrainian forces managed to infiltrate and attack Russian tanks.

The United States has also studied the conflict closely to gain greater lessons on how to wage war between two modern states in the twenty-first century.

How did Ukraine become a laboratory for Western weapons and innovations on the battlefield?
Credit: ANATOLII STEPANOV/AFP via Getty Images

One lesson the United States may learn from this conflict, the operations officer said, is that towed artillery — such as the M777 howitzer system — may be a thing of the past. It’s very difficult to move these systems quickly to avoid return fire, this person said – and in a world where drones and overhead surveillance are common, “it’s very difficult to hide nowadays.”

When it comes to lessons learned, Democratic Rep. Jim Himes of Connecticut, who sits on the House Intelligence Committee, said, “There’s a book going to be written on this topic.”

US defense contractors have also noted the new opportunity to study – and commercialize – their systems.

BAE Systems has already announced that the Russian success of its kamikaze drones has influenced how it designed a new armored fighting vehicle for the army, adding more armor to protect soldiers from attacks from above.

Various parts of the US government and industry have sought to test new systems and solutions in a fight for which Ukraine needed all the help it could get.

In the early days of the conflict, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency sent five lightweight, high-precision drones to US Special Operations Command in Europe — just in case they might prove useful in Ukraine. The drones, made by a company called Hexagon, were not part of the Department of Defense’s so-called registration program, indicating the experimental nature of the conflict.

Even Navy Vice Admiral Robert Sharp, the head of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency at the time, even publicly boasted that the United States had trained a “military partner” in Europe on the system.

“What this allows you to do is go out under cloud cover and collect your geo-intelligence data,” Sharp told CNN on the sidelines of a satellite conference in Denver last spring.

Despite extensive efforts by a small group of US officials and outside industries, it remains unclear whether these drones have ever entered the fray.

Meanwhile, several intelligence and military officials told CNN they hope creating what the US military calls drones — cheap, disposable weapons — will become a top priority for defense contractors.

“I wish we could make a $10,000 one-way attack drone,” said one of those officials wistfully.

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