(CNN) — As Ukraine retook large areas in a series of counterattacks last fall, it slammed into Russian forces with US artillery and missiles. To guide part of this artillery, Ukraine developed a home-made targeting system on the battlefield.
A piece of Ukrainian-made software has turned readily available tablets and smartphones into sophisticated targeting tools that are now widely used in the Ukrainian military.
The result is a mobile app that converts satellite and other intelligence imagery into a real-time targeting algorithm that helps units near the frontline fire directly at specific targets. And since it’s an app and not a piece of hardware, it’s easy and quick to update and available to a wide range of people.
US officials familiar with the tool say it was very effective in directing Ukrainian artillery fire at Russian targets.
The targeting app is among dozens of examples of battlefield innovations that Ukraine developed during nearly a year of war, often finding cheap solutions to expensive problems.
Small plastic drones that silently zoom overhead drop grenades and other ammunition at Russian troops. 3D printers now produce spare parts for soldiers to repair heavy equipment in the field. Engineers have turned ordinary pickup trucks into mobile rocket launchers. Engineers have figured out how to fit sophisticated US missiles to older Soviet fighter jets like the MiG-29 to keep Ukraine’s air force flying after nine months of war.
Ukraine has even developed its own anti-ship weapon, the Neptun, based on Soviet missile designs and capable of attacking the Russian fleet from nearly 200 miles (320 kilometers) away.
This kind of Ukrainian ingenuity has impressed US officials, who have praised Kiev’s ability to offer “MacGyver” solutions to their battlefield needs that fill in key tactical gaps left by larger and more sophisticated Western weaponry.
While US and other Western officials don’t always have a precise idea of exactly how Ukraine’s custom systems work, largely because they’re not on the ground, officials and open-source analysts alike say Ukraine’s at a true Combat lab has become cheap but effective solutions.
“Their innovation is incredibly impressive,” said Seth Jones, director of the international security program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“Real World Combat Trials”
Meanwhile, the war in Ukraine has also afforded the United States and its allies a rare opportunity to study how their own weapon systems perform under heavy loads and what ammunition both sides are using to achieve victories in this hotly contested modern war. US operations officials and other military officials have also followed the success with which Russia has used cheap and expendable Iranian-supplied drones that explode on impact to decimate Ukraine’s power grid.
Ukraine is “absolutely a weapons laboratory in every sense because none of this equipment has ever been used in a war between two industrialized nations,” said a source familiar with Western intelligence. “This is a real combat test.”
For the US military, the war in Ukraine was an incredible source of data on the usefulness of its own systems.
Some high-profile systems made available to the Ukrainians — such as the Switchblade 300 drone and a missile designed to target enemy radar systems — have proved less effective than expected on the battlefield, according to a US military operations official with knowledge from Schlachtfeld and a recent study by a British think tank.
But the US-made M142 Multiple Rocket Launcher, or HIMARS, was critical to Ukraine’s success, even as officials learned valuable lessons about the rate of maintenance and repair these systems required under such heavy use.
The way Ukraine has used its limited stockpile of HIMARS missiles to wreak havoc on Russian command and control by attacking command posts, headquarters and supply depots is revealing, a defense official said, adding that the leading military would study this for years.
Other important information concerned the M777 Howitzer, the powerful artillery that was a fundamental part of Ukraine’s battlefield power. But howitzer barrels lose their rifling when too many shells are fired in a short period of time, another defense official said, making the artillery less accurate and less effective.
The Ukrainians have also made tactical innovations that have impressed Western officials. In the early weeks of the war, Ukrainian commanders adjusted their operations to use small teams of dismounted infantry during the Russian advance on Kyiv. Armed with shoulder-mounted Stinger and Javelin missiles, Ukrainian troops were able to sneak up on Russian tanks without infantry on their flanks.
The United States has also studied the conflict closely to draw broader lessons on how a war between two modern nations might be fought in the 21st century.
The chief of operations said one lesson the United States can learn from this conflict is that towed artillery, such as the M777 howitzer system, may be a thing of the past. These systems are more difficult to move quickly to avoid return fire, and in a world of ubiquitous drones and aerial surveillance, “they are very difficult to hide today,” this person explained.
When it comes to the lessons learned, “a book needs to be written about that,” said Rep. Jim Himes, D-Conn., a member of the House Intelligence Committee.
“A $10,000 Disposable Attack Drone”
US defense contractors have also taken note of the new opportunity to study – and commercialize – their systems.
BAE Systems announced that Russia’s success with its kamikaze drones has influenced the development of a new armored fighting vehicle for the army that adds more armor to protect soldiers from attacks from above.
And various parts of US government and industry have tried to test novel systems and solutions in a fight that Ukraine needed all the help it could get.
In the early days of the conflict, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency sent five high-resolution, lightweight surveillance drones to the US Special Operations Command in Europe in case they could be useful in Ukraine. The drones, manufactured by a company called Hexagon, were not part of the Department of Defense’s so-called registration program, indicating the experimental nature of the conflict.
Navy Vice Admiral Robert Sharp, then head of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, even boasted publicly that the US had trained a “military partner” in Europe on the system.
“This allows you to go below the cloud layer and collect your own data. [de geointeligencia]’ Sharp told CNN on the sidelines of a satellite conference in Denver last spring.
Despite intensive efforts by a small group of US officials and outside the industry, it is not known if these drones ever made it into battle.
Meanwhile, several military and intelligence officials told CNN they hope creating what the US military calls “relatable” drones (cheap, disposable weapons) has become a priority for contractors.
CNN’s Tim Lister and Alex Marquardt contributed to this report.