Bind Ukraine’s Military-Technology Revolution to Rapid Capability Development


The political heat around Gen. Valery Zaluzhny’s comments last fall should not obscure the insight they offer into a shift in his approach to force design. A year earlier, Ukraine’s commander-in-chief expressed requirements in terms of platforms: “I need 300 tanks, 600–700 infantry fighting vehicles, 500 howitzers.” Now, he talks about capabilities: air superiority, counter-battery, electronic warfare, and mine breaching — to be developed using “new technological solutions and innovative approaches.”

To a degree, the accent on innovation reflects the obsolescence of some of the older donated systems. More importantly, it conveys a growing confidence in Ukraine’s native ability to develop and integrate new technologies to deliver lethal capability to its troops. As many have noted, Ukraine is surfing the wave of a military-technological revolution, exploiting the diffusion of dual-use technologies through close collaboration between civilian developers and military end-users.

What fewer may realize, however, is the extent to which Ukraine’s grass-roots model of defense innovation has relied on the initiative of volunteers and private donors. Approaching the third year of all-out war, the government has initiated several programs to cut red tape and support local industry but has yet to embrace the agile and mission-focused approach pioneered by civil society. To reach this objective, Ukraine should establish a defense-led, end-to-end process that binds the mil-tech revolution to rapid capability development.

Towards this end, Ukraine should establish a capability accelerator that runs a process of mission integration tailored to leverage emerging and disruptive technologies. Building on the success of grass-roots efforts, the accelerator would provide much-needed guidance and open a new channel for structured security cooperation. Instead of merely sharing intelligence from the world’s leading test ground for new approaches to warfare, Ukraine and its partners would reap greater rewards through the joint development of solutions.



The Societal Source of Defense Innovation

When Ukraine was invaded in February 2014, its security and defense sector was in disarray. Fortunately, the Revolution of Dignity coincided with the democratization of military capability, and tech-savvy activists stepped in for a faltering state. Beyond the provision of non-lethal support like gear, rations, and medications, volunteers designed, developed, procured and fielded systems and apps for ballistic calculation, tactical battle management, secure communications, and drone surveillance, leveraging technologies that until recently were the preserve of states.

The pressure of war and the weakness of defense institutions thus catalyzed the emergence of a distinct, Ukrainian model of defense innovation that spans the boundary between closed military communities and the civilian world to develop capability from readily available commercial technologies. A decade later, Ukraine’s military had developed immensely as a fighting force, but the institutions for planning, resource management, and acquisitions lagged, as shown by the failure to procure or import meaningful quantities of armaments and gear before the full-scale invasion. To this day, volunteers raise funds to supply an inordinate share of the basic equipment and advanced technologies employed by frontline units.

Security expert Audrey Kurth Cronin has shown how public-private innovation is key to Ukraine’s strategic resilience, but the leading role of society in this tandem is not sufficiently recognized. For example, the Delta platform, the core of what Cronin calls the “seamless integration of public and private digital capabilities,” was not acquired by government from industry, as she reasonably assumes, but imposed upon the recalcitrant defense establishment through years of persistent pressure from civil society, representing the interests of troops on the ground.

Delta — which was used to orchestrate the defense of Kyiv, the Kharkiv and Kherson counter-offensives, and the sinking of the cruiser Moskva — integrates intelligence with surveillance, target acquisition, and reconnaissance tasks, providing situational awareness and decision-making support. Delta development was initiated by Aerorozvidka, one of the first groups of volunteers to support the troops fighting in eastern Ukraine since 2014, with the consistent support of NATO, the United Kingdom, Canada, Germany, and other allies.

Tellingly, Delta is only one of several examples of sophisticated capability development projects initiated or delivered by non-governmental organizations and defense startups. Consider a few others. Teams like Army SOS or UA Dynamics crowdsourced funds to develop, manufacture, and field the Kropyva targeting software, as well as the Valkyriareconnaissance and the Punisher strike drones. Interfacing directly with military units on the front, they developed techniques, tactics, and procedures for reconnaissance and strike drone missions, along with top-notch target acquisition.

As for state efforts, Ukraine’s security and intelligence agencies and special operators have shown the most initiative, reaching out to volunteers and private donors on projects that leverage commercial technologies to execute operations of strategic importance. As recently revealed, this led to the development of the fixed-wing Beaver drone, to conduct precision strikes against adversary missile production and storage facilities, and the Sea Baby surface drone, to execute the strikes on the Kerch Bridge.

The Challenge of Scale

As demonstrated by the examples above, Ukraine’s model of grass-roots innovation exhibits several key features. First, the focus is placed on capabilities rather than technologies. Effects attainable through the augmentation of tactics, improved situational awareness, or combinations of systems are preferred to material solutions for reasons of cost and time. Second, tasking is focused on clearly defined combat missions, enabling the orchestration of multiple actors and systems to achieve the maximum combat effects. Third, minimally viable systems are deployed into battle even at relatively low levels of maturity. Fourth, immediate operational feedback is used for continuous improvement, in a spiral model of capability development, addressing individual capability components as time allows. Fifth, informal networksthat evolved over several years between civilians and field commanders facilitate direct interaction of developers with end-users. Sixth, donor funding minimizes overhead and eliminates red tape, enabling development at minimal expense. Finally, experts in acquisitions, engineering, and operations work together in dedicated cross-functional teams.

The initiative of independent actors in this ecosystem has given Ukraine an early edge in many areas such as the use of autonomy and artificial intelligence in support of reconnaissance and precision strikes. However, the informality of the approach also poses challenges. Donations and crowdfunding enjoy low overheads, but only commercial contracting can tap the much larger and reliable pools of state funding and private capital necessary for planning and scale. The donation of ostensibly free goods and services has enhanced national resilience, but the outsized role of volunteers in the supply of essential battlefield capabilities sometimes becomes a source of controversy.

To address these issues, the Ukrainian government launched the Army of Drones project along with Brave1, a platform that provides grants to Ukrainian companies, linking investors, stakeholders, and companies into a technology cluster. Regulatory reforms expedited the import of dual-use technologies, simplified the certification of uncrewed and electronic warfare systems, and authorized non-competitive procurement through simple, cost-plus contracts with a margin of up to 25 percent, and advance payments up to 70 percent of costs for up to 12 months. Domestically produced systems slated for transition are fast-tracked through codification by the Ministry of Defense in just a few weeks.

Supporting the development of defense startups will bring a greater variety of new products to the door of defense. Scaling the production of selected systems will deliver large quantities of those systems, just as volunteers crowdfund the mass purchase of commercial off-the-shelf drones. Expediting certification and codification will accelerate the process designed to ensure the quality of products, but none of these efforts are focused on the identification of urgent operational requirements and making the connection between available technologies and mission needs.

To a degree, Ukraine’s special operators have picked up the slack. However, their model of training, equipping, and planning for the execution of strategic-level, one-off operations is too expensive and time-consuming to scale. Focused on building bespoke solutions one operation at a time, their approach is ill-suited to replicating and diffusing capability more widely. As emphasized by “Hunter,” the brigadier-general who masterminded the Kerch operation, “the [Security Service of Ukraine] will never, ever strike the same way twice.” Moreover, the secrecy inherent to their way of work compartmentalizes expertise and lessons learned — antithetical to the open model of innovation necessary to exploit dual-use technology in a timely manner.

The Need for a Capability Accelerator

Ukraine’s defense innovation ecosystem now consists of hundreds of Ukrainian and international entities pursuing thousands of projects. They are increasingly capable of supplying whatever technologies may be required. But the impactof the mil-tech revolution depends on the capacity of the defense establishment to characterize operational challenges and a policy to implement a process for developing capability in a rapid, effective, and feasible manner. This capacity and policy are not yet in place.

Admittedly, the rapid integration of emerging and disruptive technologies is a challenge for military organizations everywhere. During the Cold War, technologies were developed in house and the development cycle for new platforms in the United States and Soviet Union alike was about a decade. But now that commercial companies are releasing new products by the day, established acquisition processes have become a bottleneck to the development and delivery of capability to the user.

Capability-based approaches introduced via cooperation with NATO are relatively new to the defense establishment of Ukraine. Capability-based planning was not formally implemented until December 2020, and a capabilities management committee to guide the process was only established in January 2023. These developments will guide major acquisitions and the allocation of resources in the medium term but are not designed to hasten emerging and disruptive technologies into the battlefield.

For this purpose, Dan Patt and Bryan Clark have called, in a Hudson Institute report, for the implementation of a mission integration process that includes the following six functions: problem definition; solution development and experimentation; material procurement; digital integration; resourcing and requirements; and operational refinement. In the U.S. context, these functions are all being implemented, but they are scattered across the Department of Defense and should ideally, as argued by Patt and Clark, be consolidated under a single resource sponsor, with program managers established in service program executive offices.

In Ukraine, a process of mission integration resembling that described by the Hudson Institute has been implemented mainly by volunteers and startups working ad hoc with front-line commanders and special operators. Crucially, their approach assigns an absolute priority to the timely delivery of capability using readily available technologies, and is powered by adaptable resource allocation. The establishment of a capability accelerator would thus be an evolutionary step — formalizing and elevating this practice with systems and capability thinking — rather than the introduction of something completely new.

The accelerator would introduce state of the art methods for approaching, assessing, validating, sourcing, resourcing, and fielding capabilities to meet urgent operational needs. It would manage a portfolio of open innovation projects, implemented by task force teams of technology, military, and business specialists, working directly with warfighting units. As a clearly defined program with transparent governance, the accelerator would also set an example in terms of the accountable allocation of resources to priorities.

By bringing acquisition together with concept development and experimentation, the accelerator would not simply tighten the loop between defense and industry to accelerate iterative improvements, but address attributes like performance, security, interoperability, maintainability, and other qualities necessary for adoption and transition, and not just once the system is submitted for certification, but at the earliest possible stage of development through stakeholder engagement.

Building upon the longstanding network of relationships between civilian developers and military end users — as well as the work of Brave1 — the capability accelerator would enable Ukraine’s military and defense establishment to play a more active role in aligning technological development with urgent operational needs. The development of technologies and the development of capabilities are distinct but complementary programs that require distinct but cooperating sponsors.

The formalization of a rapid capability development process would also enable structured cooperation with allied battle laboratories, warfare centers, and military services. At present, Ukraine’s partners are observing the tandem of defense innovation and military adaptation from afar. They treat it as a matter for intelligence collection and are developing solutions to emerging challenges in various allied formats, separately from Ukraine.

Given the speed of change on the battlefield, joint efforts to develop solutions would generate far greater benefits for Ukraine and its partners alike. Beyond good intentions, security cooperation requires structure and process — precisely what the capability accelerator should provide. Through distributed wargaming and simulation, collaboration on concept development and experimentation could be established quickly, and with no need for non-Ukrainian boots on the ground.


Zaluzhny’s essay helps to lay out a theory of success for reconstituting Ukraine’s forces after the culmination of last year’s counter-offensive. Now, to implement his vision of technology-driven capability development, new institutional capacities are required.

Ukraine has been well served by the grassroots model of defense innovation that has evolved over a decade of war. Ongoing efforts to boost the development of Ukraine’s defense industry and scale the production of platforms — like the pledge to manufacture a million drones — are essential, but they cannot in themselves connect available technologies and mission needs.

Mainstream approaches to capability development are too slow to harness emerging and disruptive technologies, and the special operations model is not meant to be diffused and scaled. These approaches should be supplemented by a rapid capability development approach that serves the security and defense forces as a whole.

In the grand scheme of Ukraine’s defense acquisitions and security cooperation, the establishment of a capability accelerator will require few resources. But by aligning resources to mission priorities and scaling the pace of innovation, it can bring vital change.



Mykhaylo Lopatin is a defense expert, director of international relations for the non-governmental organization Aerorozvidka, former member of the Reform Committee of the Ministry of Defense of Ukraine, and a co-founder of Rapid Capability Group – Ukraine. This article is a collective effort of Rapid Capability Group – Ukraine.

Image: Ukrainian Ministry of Defense