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Digital weapons of war: applications and software that help Ukraine to win

Regardless of the type and character of warfare, war has always been considered a powerful driving force of development and economic growth in the long-term perspective. Though it may sound contradictory, war can be understood as an impetus for the society to mobilize the efforts which later on results in a rapid development of technologies and innovations. The necessity to cover critical military needs causes increased military spending which, in turn, creates additional employment opportunities, extends the area of economic activities, and contributes to the development of technologies.

Ukraine is not an exception. Back in 2014, when Russia first invaded Ukraine, the state and society managed to use the shock as an impetus. Ukrainians realised they need to build economic and energy resilience but most importantly, invest in the military. Among all, the invasion provoked the emergence of the military-oriented IT as one of its most promising tracks. Since then, the number of military IT initiatives has been gradually increasing.

Kropyva mapping software. Photo: ArmySOS

Today, a regular serviceman of the Armed Forces of Ukraine (AFU) can name about a dozen most widespread software and applications that are used by the military on the daily basis: Kropyva, MilChat, Delta, GisArta, Terminal, ComBat Vision, Virazh Planshet, and more.

Now, private and volunteer initiatives prevail in the Ukrainian military IT sector. On the one hand, the current state of affairs allows flexibility, stimulates market competitiveness, and correspondingly, promotes further development of the economic sector. On the other – it also brings certain risks, given that various military units use various software which may not be compatible, says Taras Chmut, the Head of Ukraine’s largest сharity foundation Come Back Alive. 

Nevertheless, the military IT sector can serve as another prove of the Ukrainian society’s resilience, ingenuity, and entrepreneurial skills. Today, volunteer initiatives are among main drivers of Ukraine’s future victory.

The ongoing Russia’s war against Ukraine is considered network-centric warfare – the type of military conflict in which one of the sides takes over not because of the superiority in forces and warfighting means but due to the more advantageous possession of information. 

As NGO Aerorozvidka said, “one of the main concepts of such a war is to achieve an information advantage by combining technical means of intelligence and other sources of information into a single network.”

Hence, technologies are the key.

To give just a few examples, Delta is the first name that comes to mind when talking about Ukraine-made military software. Developed by the Center for Innovation and Development of Defense Technologies of the Ministry of Defence of Ukraine and Aerorozvidka, Delta is often presented as the “most compelling innovation of Ukraine”. Simply put, it is an advanced digital map which provides situational awareness to the military. The system delivers a detailed picture of the specific sectors of the frontline, and allows users to identify friend and foe, learn about the location of particular objects and their type, trace the changes that took place or were made by other users. The authorised servicemen simply “pin” the objects on the map manually, using intelligence data such as UAV-made imagery, satellite pictures, and radar data as proofs. Thus, Delta provides a comprehensive understanding of the current state of affairs within the specified area in real-time, allowing to exchange data and make informed tactical decisions.

The software is still developing: within the year, Delta had more than 30 releases of new functions to adapt the system to the current needs of network-centric warfare. Today, it also includes chatbots: eVorog, developed by the Ministry of Digital Transformation, and STOP Russian War by the Security Service of Ukraine. Both are civil intelligence-like chatbots that allow people to report on the enemy troops, their movement, and location.

Presenting Delta at NATO Tide Sprint, October 2022.

Recently, Delta was presented at the closed NATO event Tide Sprint which is held regularly to enable experience sharing among the military experts, innovators, and developers from the NATO-member and partnering states. While Delta’s platform and services are built according to the NATO standards, that makes the system compatible with similar solutions used by the militaries of the Alliance member states, – it is still considered a unique development within the NATO expert community.

According to the software’s developers, it is able to implement “[…] the latest industry trends, such as cloud-native environment, zero trust security, and multi-domain operations.”

The Ukrainian product caused great interest among the event participants, given that the existing features of the system are “tested” on a daily basis under real combat conditions. As of today, there is no other example of a similar situational awareness system integrated by any of the NATO states that would be fully deployed in and tried by the warfare against Russia.

Photo: MilChat on Twitter, @mil_chat

Another example of Ukraine-made software currently “serving” on the frontline is MilChat, created in 2018 by Yaroslav Sherstiuk, a professional artilleryman and self-taught programmer. Designed by the military for the military, MilChat is a secure messenger app which can be found in most of the AFU servicemen gadgets. To be more precise, approximately 600,000 Ukrainian military use the application today. Among all, the application allows exchanging tactical environment data, determining coordinates, identifying azimuth, and transmitting geolocation data.

Apart from MilChat, Sherstiuk is also known as the author of at least two other military applications. A simple ballistic calculator was his first product, integrated into the Armed Forces. It was designed to enhance artillery calculations which previously had to be done by the artillerymen and women manually, using the ancient iron plate with a ruler. Later on, the first version of Sherstiuk’s ballistic calculator was significantly updated and transformed into the now widely-spread Ukrop (aka MyGun for iOS version).

Kropyva, created by ArmySOS back in 2014,is another software widely accepted into service. It is an intelligence mapping software developed for planning, calculations, and orientation. Simply speaking, an offline map which can be downloaded and used when there is no connection. Unlike Delta, which is a cloud solution, it is not suitable for modernisation, however, that is, it cannot be constantly updated.

Photo: ComBat Vision at National Defence Hackathon 2022.
Photo: ComBat Vision Facebook page

ComBat Vision, launched by People’s Project in 2015, functions as a software and hardware military intelligence system that enables online management of troops. The system, based on various sources, captures objects’ location and appearance, classifies and filters them using the embedded GIS, and afterwards, provides the results to the users for further analysis, reaction, and action coordination. The development may be interesting for both Ukrainian and foreign stakeholders in civil industries: apart from military tasks, ComBat Vision can also be applicable for the purposes of police, emergency services, and border control service to advance their work in crisis situations.

While there are many more examples of Ukrainian developments to be named here, they all have a shared feature. It is the attractiveness of the Ukrainian military IT products in the eyes of Western stakeholders. In the Western militaries and military industries, there are normally four main stages through which the product or innovation has to pass: creating the product/innovation, presenting the project to the relevant government bodies, testing, adopting into service.

For Ukraine, there is also an additional stage – operational testing under real combat conditions. Precisely the fifth additional element makes Ukrainian developments unique, valuable, and much wanted by Ukraine’s allies.

The ongoing war created the conditions under which Ukraine provides an opportunity to test various Western arms and weapons systems, for instance, development and exploitation of UAVs, innovative military equipment, and technologies. Obviously, this is also relevant when talking about military software. As of today, there is no other state and no other Armed forces, except the Ukrainian, that would have an experience of successful appliance of the military software in a full-scale, multi-dimensional warfare, fighting against Russia. Thus, the authentic, hands-on experience and expertise, gained by the Ukrainian military is what Ukraine can suggest to the world today.

Photo: ArmySOS

Finally, it is important to understand that after 8 years and 9 months living in a state of war, Ukraine can and should be considered not only as a state-recipient but also as a donor. The experience of Ukrainian developers and engineers can be used, for example, in planning of the US military operations in the future. This is relevant in the context of the situational awareness system Delta, – as mentioned by Victoria Nuland, the US Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs.

Overall, while the Ukrainian military are still actively engaged in various kinds of training programs, run by the NATO-member states, – a mental shift has already happened: Ukraine shares its lessons learned, and these lessons can be studied by its allies.