British scholar Matthew Ford, coauthor of an upcoming book on the impact information infrastructure and connected devices have on conventional military conflicts, calls the phenomenon “radical war.”
Ford says that the high level of mobile connectivity among Ukrainians and a notable absence of combat footage from smartphones and headcams, especially in the early phases of the war, suggest an effective information operation may be underway. “No doubt the Ukrainians fear such images will reveal their tactics, techniques, and procedures,” says Ford. So Ukrainians may simply be censoring themselves.
Social media platforms and cell phones are also a force multiplier for traditionally weaker military powers, like Ukraine, especially when it comes to coordinating intelligence collection for targeting activities. “Targeting information is now being exchanged online,” Ford says. “Successful kills have been celebrated on Telegram. Chatbots have been established, helping Ukrainians share target coordinates with their smartphones. Identifying targets doesn’t involve complex military systems; it works from civilian information infrastructures.”
“The problem with crowdsourced intelligence in a war like Ukraine is standardizing the reporting,” Ford says. For example: “You want to be able to identify the vehicle, geo-locate it, then map against any available signals or satellite imagery, or other collection disciplines, fusing it into actionable target information.”
The Russian invasion of Ukraine is not only the 21st century’s first conventional war in Europe, it is the “most digitally connected in history,” according to Ford. “If the Ukrainians can make that intelligence actionable quicker than the Russians, they can use their limited remote fires, artillery, drones, and maybe even missiles or air power effectively. The objective, therefore, is to find, fix, and finish Russian forces more quickly than the Russians can do this themselves.”
When Russia launched its full-scale invasion in late February, the US, its allies, and Russia concluded that Ukraine’s forces were asymmetrically disadvantaged against Putin’s endowed and historically brutal counterpart. US officials expected the country to fall in days. Yet despite the US’s monumental success predicting Russia’s intentions and plans and offering warnings, American intelligence agencies incorrectly assessed Ukraine’s prospects—the current subject of an internal review.
Facing the full onslaught of Russia’s armed forces, Ukraine’s military resilience may even have come as a bit of a surprise to Ukrainians themselves, Ford suspects. Yet mistaken judgments about the expected balance between strong and weak powers, accompanied by strategic surprise, may be a common occurrence in the information age. Before the acknowledged role of social media in fueling the Arab Spring, or the reported significance of thumb drives in more recent counterintelligence failures—telecommunications, open source infrastructure, and cheap and accessible consumer technology have impacted the parity calculus for state and non-state actors alike.