Silicon Valley Is Using Ukraine As A Proving Ground For Cutting-Edge Defense Tech

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Micaela Burrow Investigative Reporter, Defense
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Tech startups are looking to Ukraine as a testing site for their cutting-edge defense products amid the Pentagon’s apparent hesitance to invest in smaller companies and speed up the weapons acquisition process, The New York Times reported.

At least 30 different products manufactured mostly by small U.S.-based businesses and identified by the NYT have surfaced on the battlefield in Ukraine, whose military and allies have proven eager to demonstrate the products in the effort to repel Russia’s invasion. Tech companies hope the war will convince the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) to open up to buying from smaller companies whose offerings are appropriate to today’s warfighting needs, versus the typical years-long research and production process.

In some cases, the U.S. government is purchasing products from the companies to send to Ukraine, according to the NYT. In others, the government in Kyiv and other pro-Ukraine organizations source the equipment directly from the companies, and some firms are donating their technology. (RELATED: Has Ukraine’s Counterattack Begun? Experts Think It May Have Despite Official Denials)

Companies like Maxar Technologies, BlackSky and Planet Labs provide commercial satellites that can capture images of Russian troops and equipment, aiding Ukraine’s intelligence collection efforts, according to the NYT.

The most conventional of the tech startups, these firms have already won billions in Pentagon contracts after coming on the market just a few years ago. Their satellites are cheaper, smaller and have a shorter production time than the advanced satellites the U.S. military already operates.

While the Pentagon has fielded large attack drones that cost in the tens of millions of dollars per unit for decades, Ukrainian operators are turning toward smaller, cheaper varieties produced by American companies like AeroVironment, Skydio, Shield AI, Teal Drones, BRINC and Anduril Industries, the NYT reported. The vehicles primarily assist in aerial surveillance, identifying and tracking threats to Ukrainian troops.

Company executives argue that capabilities like the drones could offer additional means of attacking.

Recently, DOD has begun to consider the concept of drone swarms, hundreds of small attack UAVs that assault a single target at once, according to The Warzone. California-based AeroVironment has sold about 5,000 swarming drones to the Pentagon over the past decade, but CEO Wahid Nawabi told the NYT the company can easily sustain orders of about 16,000 a year.

A Palantir Technologies Skykit, is displayed at the companys booth during the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, Nevada on January 5, 2023. - The Skykit incorporates the companys software along with a UAV drone, trail camera, battery packs, and a SpaceX Starlink terminal into a self-contained defense intelligence package deployable to hostile environments.

A Palantir Technologies Skykit, is displayed at the companys booth during the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, Nevada on January 5, 2023. (Photo by PATRICK T. FALLON/AFP via Getty Images)

Ukraine has used products from Virginia-based Dedone, California-based SkySafe and Utah-based Fordone to track and in some cases disable incoming Russian drones through radio signal jamming, according to the NYT. Software outfitted with artificial intelligence (AI) from Palantir has helped Ukraine process massive amounts of collected intelligence.

But the companies complain that the Pentagon’s risk aversion and close relationship with a few large defense contractors have hindered uptake of valuable tech and led to layoffs at smaller companies.

“The big defense companies, they don’t really kind of invest in the tech,” Sean Gourley, who founded AI firm Primer, told the NYT. “They just invest in how to navigate this bureaucracy.”

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