Two technologies have helped Ukraine fend off a huge Russian onslaught. One of them is imported; the other is homegrown.
Perhaps the more important, overall, is Elon Musk’s Starlink system. Starlink is made up of thousands of satellites in low earth orbit that provide internet service. Last February, Musk initially provided 5,000 receiver sets to Ukraine. Now the number is up to 11,000.
These satellites are crucial for linking Ukrainian drones to shooters (artillery and rocket forces) and are used to keep essential services functioning. Starlink receivers have been provided to hospitals and emergency services and to schools in Ukraine.
While the Russians are able to jam satellite transmissions, so far they have not been able to jam Starlink. Musk has reported that they are trying but so far have not been successful.
The other technology is homegrown and is software known as GIS Arta (GIS stands for geographic information system and Arta stands for artillery).
GIS Arta is an Android app that takes target information from drones, US and NATO intelligence feeds and conventional forward observers, and converts the information to precise coordinates for artillery.
GIS Arta was developed by a volunteer team of software developers led by Yaroslav Sherstyvk. It bears a resemblance to Uber taxi service software, on which the GIS Arta software is modeled.
There have been many attempts to put the internet in the sky but most of them are now dated – and, anyway, they never had the throughput needed to move video and images quickly and efficiently.
Older systems include Globalstar (1991), Inmarsat (1979) and Iridium (2000):
- Inmarsat, which operates 14 satellites, has a maximum data speed of 492 kbps kilobits per second.
- Iridium operates 66 satellites and has a data speed of 176 kbps on its older satellites, 704 on its newest.
- Globalstar, operating 24 low earth satellites, has a speed of 9.6 kbps on its first-generation satellites and up to 704 on its newest.
None of these older systems supports speeds capable of handling imaging or high quality video. In contrast, by last May Starlink was orbiting 2,547 satellites with combined upload and download speeds of 87.5 megabits per second. A minimum speed for video is 3mbps.
Starlink can also quickly replace satellites if any are destroyed or disabled. A conventional satellite takes 7.5 years to be manufactured and ready for launch. Starlink is now manufacturing an astonishing 45 satellites per week.
Finding a space vehicle to launch satellites is another obstacle. However, as Musk also controls SpaceX, his corporate empire includes not only the production of satellites but also of launch vehicles – many of which are also reusable.
Russia knocked out large swaths of Internet service in Ukraine but Starlink is replacing those services for critical needs.
It is not widely appreciated that Ukraine over the past decade has become a software powerhouse. It is the major outsourcing location for Israel, which is one of the world’s leading software innovators.
In Israel, there is a shortage of software engineers as it tech sector has exploded with a gap of at least 25,000 unfilled jobs. Important Israeli commercial companies, among them the well-known Wix and Fiverr, although based in Israel, maintain important development operations in Ukraine.
Israel has outsourced to Eastern Europe and India but the most productive and important location is Ukraine, where some 15,000 Ukrainians are directly employed and perhaps another 10,000 work part-time.
There are some strong reasons for this success. Language is no barrier partly thanks to the immigration to Israel of around 1.6 million from the former USSR – including Ukraine, which featured a large Jewish population. In addition, English is the language of the global tech community of which many young Ukrainians are fluent.
Employing Ukrainians is also cost-effective since wages are significantly lower than in Israel – or, for that matter, the United States – although before the war wages were climbing in Ukraine’s tech sector because of foreign demand.
Most importantly, development teams can work virtually, making the process efficient and inexpensive in terms of overhead. Israel and Ukraine share the same time zone and, in normal times, country-to-country air travel is just three hours.
GIS Arta makes it possible to do two things not possible before: Targets can be identified and verified visually almost immediately, and artillery and rocket systems can fire quickly and accurately.
Consider that typically it takes 20 minutes to program coordinates into an artillery piece and fire the weapon. Complicating that is verifying the target; for the US that also includes making sure there isn’t a risk of collateral damage.
The artillery previously used by Ukraine was mainly Russian and its firing system was dated and slow. GIS Arta not only changed that but also significantly improved accuracy.
GIS Arta reduces the time to fire to about 30 to 45 seconds. No Western artillery system is as capable and none apparently has the accuracy offered by GIS Arta. According to reports, Ukrainian artillery can now hit a far-away target with an accuracy of between 18 and 75 meters.
Ukraine has also modified its deployments of artillery, separating units by greater distance to make them more difficult targets for Russian counterfire. That, too, has been enabled by GIS Arta.
The GIS Arta complex also selects which gun or rocket system to use and automatically provides the coordinates to any selected system. In fact, the system is so good that Germany, which has already delivered some of its Panzerhaubitze 2000 tank howitzer 155mm mechanized guns to Ukraine, reportedly has integrated GIS Arta.
Clearly, Starlink and GIS Arta are both adding new technology dimensions to warfare that will only gain in importance in the future.
Indeed, the fact that China is deeply concerned about Starlink – to the extent it is looking for ways to track and destroy Musk’s satellites – is a tribute to the success of the system in war fighting. The Pentagon has been impressed with Starlink’s ability to fight off Russian jamming attempts and is looking at the Starlink model for future systems.
But the Pentagon has a tendency to turn an inexpensive and brilliant commercial system into an overly costly, clunky production that takes years to field. Perhaps it would be more sensible for the Pentagon to take both GIS Arta and Starlink as is and use what works.
Follow Stephen Bryen on Twitter at @stevebryen