D for Victory
No plan survives contact with the enemy, as Russia’s armed forces have discovered in Ukraine. Yet strikes on civilian targets, convoys going nowhere and the fear felt by the refugee demonstrate the truth of another military maxim: the importance of knowing what is on the other side of the hill. Historically that challenge was literal and led, two centuries ago, to the cutting-edge technology of the manned balloon being rapidly co-opted for aerial reconnaissance. Today, when obstructions are as often electronic and as vital for civilians to see beyond as for soldiers, achieving that clarity of vision or blurring it for the opposition occurs in the digital realm.
For decades now the world’s advanced militaries have spent billions on digitally-enabled, network-centric hardware – planes, vehicles and weapons that can talk to each other, improve situational awareness for their users and allow more effective actions to be taken as a result. This was also considered a solution to the interlinked problems of rising costs and reducing budgets. But the global, set-piece conflict these systems were designed for has not yet happened and the Russian and Ukrainian armies have instead found themselves fighting – for the most part – an older war, one characterised by trenches and artillery and ambushes. With a history of inflexible doctrine and limited abilities, some of Russia’s conscripts have been unable to function even at this level. The Royal United Services Institute’s excellent analysis of their reliance on civilian mobile phones and basic military radios rather than state-of-the-art, encrypted devices, for example, makes this point though misses the irony – reported elsewhere – of Soviet-era cabled field telephones being employed by Ukraine as a hedge against the more advanced interception techniques they initially anticipated.
Russia has sent misleading and demoralising text messages from cell site simulators, which trick phones into thinking they are connecting to a legitimate tower, but in the Cyrillic cyberwar she also appears to be struggling. A campaign of digital offence against Ukrainian and internal enemies has included suppressing the internet, blocking international websites and putting down local dissident chatter but the BBC – a symbol of conformity for many here at home – has been employing those web services that remain available to tell people where to find and how to use the anonymising browser Tor and other ‘circumvention tools’, and reactivated its analogue shortwave radio service to provide an alternative (albeit one-way) messaging route that cannot be impeded. Meanwhile, both Russians and Ukrainians have been mobilising to conduct mass attacks against Russian government websites, supported by thousands of international hacktivists and volunteers under the banner ‘IT Army of Ukraine’. More than one firm has offered facial recognition systems as an aid to identifying infiltrators and casualties as well as tracing family members.
It is in such areas of life (and, sadly, death) that Ukrainian citizens have been finding their digital needs to be as vital as the traditional necessities. One former finance minister has described a working mobile phone as "another form of air", a spider’s web of recharging cables emanating from a single trailing socket illustrating this. To provide additional support Kyiv Digital, that city’s local authority app which used to be a portal for metro services, parking tickets and paying the bills, has – rather brilliantly – been repurposed to counter Russian aggression by providing air raid warnings, maps of bomb shelters, details of where to find outlets for insulin, water and bread and so on.
It is citizens, too, who have been providing much of the coverage of the war. In contrast to the single-source imagery that emerged, under tight control, from the Falklands War four decades ago next month, those smartphones have generated a blizzard of video footage and photographs that anyone can access. Quite apart from the moments of individual triumph or tragedy they record, harvested in toto they have served a wider function. News organisations, think tanks, individuals and government agencies have collated, examined (visually and via their metadata) and geolocated what they show to identify, pinpoint and verify military actions on the ground. This has cut through disinformation and provided broadly objective assessments of military losses and apparent weaknesses, such as the spotting of cheap Chinese tyres on otherwise expensive vehicles.
More stories are appearing every day that illustrate how digital technology, uniquely able to be created in one country and made available in another instantly and for nothing, continues to have profound and often unpredictable effects on this war. The bullet will unfortunately retain its power to change lives, but the impact of the byte, channeled by and through the established, ubiquitous infrastructure of personal devices, should not be underestimated.