“You may fly over a land forever; you may bomb it, atomize it, and wipe it clean of life – but if you desire to defend it, protect it, and keep it for civilization, you must do this on the ground, the way the Roman Legions did – by putting your soldiers in the mud.” – T R Ferenbach
War spurs innovation. While peacetime stifles the speed of military advances, the unfolding battles in Ukraine continue to reveal a relentless pace of technological adaptation.
Observing life and death on Ukraine’s battlefield, it’s evident to us that modern warfare now transforms at startup speeds. This battlefield— interwoven with World War I-style trenches modern counter-terrorism command centers, and a burgeoning fleet of adapted commercial drones—is tied together by everyday internet technology. The same software used by gamers to synchronize online Call of Duty tactics now does it in a game with no pause nor reset button.
This meshing of century-old tactics with state-of-the-art hobbyist tech, overlaid with the brutality of war, paints a harrowing portrait. We saw it in the eyes and streaming video feeds of the brave Ukrainian units hosting us on a front line amid their former homes and their businesses now serving as operations centers. Over 100 Ukrainian soldiers die everyday against a much larger invading Russian force.
Conventional wisdom might posit the widespread use of drones would sanitize warfare, but the in-the-mud reality we witnessed debunks this. Ground troops, with drones circling overhead, know they’re constantly under the watchful eyes of unseen pilots a few kilometers away. And those pilots know they are potentially in opposing crosshairs watching back. Nietzche’s words come to mind: “And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.” This feeling of exposure and lethal voyeurism is everywhere in Ukraine.
Behind this front, commanders work in bunkers with internet connectivity that even advanced militaries would envy. Cybersecurity remains a constant concern, but in this high-paced game, the fleeting value of data lends unexpected safety to non-militarized internet applications. They give Ukraine a gamer’s combat pace and startup’s innovation cycle as means of advantage.
But during our visit this summer, it appeared this advantage was waning: Russia had adapted to Western weapons and Ukrainian techniques. Improved jamming and air defenses were increasingly grounding air power, putting more and more “soldiers in the mud” of a gridlocked front. This war threatens to become a protracted stalemate unless a decisive breakthrough emerges.
For Ukraine, that breakthrough could lie in transforming their nascent drone startup ecosystem—over 200 companies, many with affiliated combat units – into a continuously evolving software platform. As Russia showcases advancements like the Orlan-10 and Lancet drones, S-400s air defenses, enhanced electronic warfare—all in seemingly inexhaustible quantities – Ukraine’s response could be even faster-evolving software that “internetizes” the battlefield with autonomy, AI , and ad hoc networking. Rather than new hardware, new software—and some clever tactics—can hold the innovation high ground. Traditional militaries, with their slow procurement systems, have no playbook for this. Entrepreneurs and technologists do.
Any advantage on the battlefield is fleeting. So Ukraine must evolve constantly, lest scales tip in favor of the larger adversary. To triumph, Ukraine must win the “startup war” that constantly brings new systems and new software to the battlefield, employs them for tactical advantage, and then evolves them, just as Russian countermeasures are being perfected.
At the heart of this strategy lies the drone—not just as an airborne device but as a potent software platform. Imagine drones that never miss, drones that never operate in isolation, drones with unbreakable communication lines, and drones that, in swarms, always prevail. All possible with software, and all changeable—all the time.
Such a strategy would redefine warfare tactics by redefining its economics. En masse, low-cost drones may incapacitate million-dollar tanks or ships, creating a cost-exchange ratio that can bankrupt Russia’s military and light Ukraine’s path to victory.
This cost-imposition warfare will bankrupt many traditional military concepts and alter the global security landscape. As Ukraine pioneers cost-effective warfare methods, demand for them will inevitably rise. Western militaries, accustomed to expensive precision weaponry, might soon find themselves adapting to more affordable yet equally potent armaments.
The rapid, software-driven nature of these systems will also accelerate the onset of AI-powered warfare. This technological leap, fully separating the human attacker from their target, foretells a profound redefinition of warfare and deterrence—one where low-cost mass, data and algorithms dominate offense and defense becomes increasingly unaffordable.
How would mutually assured destruction be communicated, or stockpiles checked, when its means is millions of connected numbers we call AI? The specter of a never-ending AI arms race demands new modes of diplomacy to prevent escalatory threats.
As we left the front lines, exchanging bulletproof vests for civilian clothes, we knew this new technology’s implications were not fully understood. So while actively supporting Ukraine’s success, the world opens a new Pandora’s box filled with killing machines of a new kind.
Progress cannot be stopped, only guided. If software and drones can change a battlefield, they will—hundreds at a time. The world will need new conventions for doing this responsibly, and means of decrying violations. Unlike another autonomous weapon, the landmine that kills civilians every day in Ukraine, lethal drones must be locatable, limited in autonomous duration, and guided by humans. All things software can ensure.
As warfare’s cycle times quickens, so must every function supporting it, so must the functions that deter it: from public debate to international laws and policies. Will the world rise to this challenge? We hope so, just as we hope for victory in Ukraine.
Will Roper is a former assistant Secretary of the Air Force, now serving on the Pentagon’s Innovation Board. He is a distinguished professor at Georgia Tech and CEO of technology startup, Istari Digital.
Eric Schmidt is the former CEO and chairman of Alphabet and co-founder of Schmidt Futures.
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