Second of two parts. Read Part 1.
At the British camp, instructors have dug 300 yards of trenches across a frigid hillside. The trenches are 4 feet deep, girded with sandbags and planks, and slick with mud and water at the bottom. The Ukrainian recruits, who’ve never been in battle before, have to spend 48 hours in these hellholes. Sometimes, there’s simulated artillery fire overhead and rotting animal flesh nearby to prepare the trainees for the smell of death.
The recruits practice attacking the trenches and defending them. But mostly they learn to stay alive and as warm as they can, protecting their wet, freezing feet from rot and disease. “Nobody likes the trenches,” says Oleh, the Ukrainian officer who oversees the training with his British colleagues. (I’m not using his full name to respect concerns about his security.) “We tell them it will be easier in battle. If it’s hard now, that’s the goal.”
The paradox of the Ukraine conflict is that it combines the World War I nightmare of trench warfare with the most modern weapons of the 21st century.
“It’s hard to understand the brutality of contact in that front line. It’s Passchendaele in Donetsk,” explains Brigadier Justin Stenhouse, referring to one of the bloodiest battles of World War I. He oversees training for the British Ministry of Defense in Whitehall and arranged my visit to the training camp.
Lt. Col. Jon Harris, the British commander at the camp, states his training mission bluntly: “Learn to survive and win against Russia.”
The Ukraine war has fused the flesh-and-blood bravery of these Ukrainian troops on the ground with the stunning high-tech arsenal that I described in Part 1 of this report. The result is a revolution in warfare. This transformation, rarely discussed in the media, has been evolving for more than a decade. It shows the lethal ability of the United States and its allies to project power — and it also raises some vexing questions about how this power will be used.
One of the leading actors in this underreported revolution has been Palantir, which developed its software platform after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks to help the CIA integrate data that was often in different compartments and difficult to share. News reports have frequently said that Palantir software helped track al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, but the company won’t confirm that.
The Pentagon’s use of these ultramodern tools was encouraged by a very old-fashioned commander, Gen. Mark A. Milley, the gruff and often profane chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. When he was Army chief of staff in 2018, the service began working with Palantir and other tech companies to integrate data through a program called Army Vantage. Milley was frustrated by an antiquated data system that made it hard to gather details about what units were ready for battle. The Army, like so many government institutions, had too many separate repositories for information.
Palantir technicians showed me an unclassified version of the Army database they helped create to address that problem. You can see in an instant what units are ready, what skills and experience the soldiers in these units have, and what weapons and ammunition are available. Logistics problems like this once took weeks to solve; now there are answers in seconds.
“The U.S. military is focused on readiness today and readiness in the future,” Milley told me in an email last week. “In defense of our country, we’re pulling together a wide variety of technologies to remain number one, the most effective fighting force in the world.”
The Army began testing ideas about algorithmic warfare with individual units around that time as well. The first choice was the elite 82nd Airborne, commanded in 2020 by Maj. Gen. Christopher Donahue; it was part of the XVIII Airborne Corps, then headed by Lt. Gen. Michael “Erik” Kurilla. These two worked with Palantir and other companies to understand how the Army could use data more effectively.
Simultaneously, the Pentagon was exploring the use of artificial intelligence to analyze sensor data and identify targets. This effort was known as Project Maven, and it initially spawned a huge controversy when it was launched in 2017. The idea was to write algorithms that could recognize, say, a Russian T-72 tank in drone surveillance images in the same way that facial recognition scans can discern a human face.
The military’s AI partnership with Silicon Valley got off to a bad start. In 2018, engineers at Google, initially the leading contractor for Maven, protested so angrily about writing targeting algorithms that the company had to withdraw from the program.
Maven has evolved. It’s now supervised by the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, and it generates AI models on a fast, one-month cycle. A tech executive explained to me that companies now compete to develop the most accurate models for detecting weapons — tuning their algorithms to see that hypothetical T-72 under a snowy grove of fir trees, let’s say, rather than a swampy field of brush — and each month the government selects a new digital array.
For a Pentagon that usually buys weapons that have a 30-year life span, this monthly rollover of targeting software is a revolution in itself.
When Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, the U.S. Army had these tools in hand — and commanders with experience using them. Donahue had moved up to become head of the XVIII Airborne Corps, which transferred its forward headquarters to Wiesbaden, Germany, just after the Russian invasion. The 82nd Airborne moved to forward quarters near Rzeszow, Poland, near the Ukraine border.
Kurilla, meanwhile, became head of Central Command and began using that key theater as a test bed for new technologies. In October, Kurilla appointed Schuyler Moore, a former director of science and technology for the Defense Innovation Board, as Centcom’s first “chief technology officer.”
For the Army and other services, the impetus for this technology push isn’t just the Russian invasion of Ukraine, but the looming challenge from China — America’s only real peer competitor in technology.
In the age of algorithm warfare, when thinking machines will be so powerful, human judgment will become all the more important. Free societies have created potent technologies that, in the hands of good governments, can enable just outcomes, and not only in war. Ukrainian officials tell me they want to use Palantir software not just to repel the Russian invasion but also to repair Ukraine’s battered electrical grid, identify hidden corruption and manage the vast tasks of reconstruction.
Mykhailo Fedorov, Ukraine’s minister for digital transformation and vice prime minister, explained in written answers to my questions how he plans to use technology not just to beat Russia but also to become a high-tech superpower in the future.
Fedorov said Ukraine is “massively” using software platforms “to deal with power shortages and in order to ensure telecom connection.” To repair electricity cutoffs and damaged energy infrastructure, the country uses Starlink terminals, Tesla Powerwall systems, and advanced generators and lithium batteries. It backs up all its important data on cloud servers.
“For sure, I’m convinced that technologies will also allow us to build a bright and safe future,” Fedorov said. “Only the newest technologies could give us such an advantage to run and create the country we deserve as fast as possible.”
But these technologies can also create 21st-century dystopias, in the wrong hands. The targeting algorithms that allow Ukraine to spot and destroy invading Russians aren’t all that different from the facial-recognition algorithms that help China repress its citizens. We’re lucky, in a sense, that these technologies are mostly developed in the West by private companies rather than state-owned ones.
But what if an entrepreneur decides to wage a private war? What if authoritarian movements gain control of democratic societies and use technology to advance control rather than freedom? What if AI advances eventually allow the algorithms themselves to take control, making decisions for reasons they can’t explain, at speeds that humans can’t match? Democratic societies need to be constantly vigilant about this technology.
The importance of the human factor is clear with Silicon Valley entrepreneurs such as Elon Musk, who illustrates the strength — and potential weakness — of America’s new way of war. If Musk decides he isn’t being paid enough for his services, or if he thinks it’s time for Ukraine to compromise, he can simply cut the line to his satellites, as he briefly threatened this fall.
Looking at the Ukraine war, we can see that our freewheeling entrepreneurial culture gives the West a big advantage over state-run autocracies such as China and Russia — so long as companies and CEOs share the same democratic values as Western governments. That’s why we need a broader public debate about the power of the technologies that are being put to noble use in Ukraine but could easily be turned to ignoble purposes in the wrong hands.
Ukraine, which has suffered so much in this war, wants to be a techno-superpower when the conflict finally ends. Fedorov, who’s overseeing Kyiv’s digital transformation, explains it this way: “Let’s plan to turn Ukraine into the world’s ‘mil-tech valley,’ to develop the most innovative security solutions, so the world will become a safer and more digital place.”
But first, the Ukrainians freezing in the filthy trenches will need to prevail.
Lt. Col. Harris, the commander of the camp in northeastern England, says he’s humbled amid the recruits there. Through five combat tours in Afghanistan and one in Iraq, though, he knows he has never faced anything as horrifying as many of them will see in a month or two.
On the firing range, 10 Ukrainian recruits squeeze off shots from their AK-47s. They’re on the second day of live-fire exercises, with eight more to come. They’re accountants, cooks and college students; some unsteady with their weapons, others newly bold. As they take aim at targets 50 feet away, a British sergeant commanding the range barks at them through an interpreter: “You need to kill the enemy before he kills you.”
And it’s as simple as that. This is a war of survival for Ukraine. But it should comfort the recruits that whatever their misery in coming months, they will have a level of technological support beyond anything the world has seen.