Tech Giants At War In Ukraine – Analysis


By Harinder Singh*

Global tech giants are shaping the future of warfare. Today, when wars are increasingly turning hybrid, governments and militaries are struggling to field the right hi-tech platforms that are critical to securing a state against hybrid threats. The Ukraine War illustrates the crucial role played by the tech giants that have mounted a successful defence against hybrid threats posed by Russia over the last decade or so. Hybrid wars demand war-fighting competencies that are mostly owned or operated by big tech conglomerates, to include cyber security, access to internet or computing power, satellite-based imagery and secure communications, and open source information.1

To cite a few examples, Google provided an advanced version of its DNS software, Project Shield alongside Google Mandiant instant response teams to Ukraine, to secure its critical information infrastructure against cyberattacks. Microsoft’s timely detection of Fox-Blade malware attack helped Ukraine secure its data on government and financial websites. Meta fielded a special operations centre to fight against disinformation. Private satellite companies like Maxar Technologies and Capella Space provided the much-needed imagery to troops on the battlefield. Google Maps helped Ukraine track military movements, till they learnt that its uncontrolled use was harmful. Star-link internet terminals, Twitter, Tik-tok, Telegram, Youtube and other digital apps have proved to be important carriers of information in this war. 

Role of Tech Giants 

While the conflict in Ukraine is largely traditional and territorial in nature, hi-tech companies have still played a major role in providing the cutting-edge technologies to shape the war. Tanks, missiles and fighter jets are no doubt critical to waging military campaigns. These are, however, not a sufficient condition to fight hybrid wars. 

When strategic war aims range from conventional operations, to destruction of strategic infrastructure and wherewithal, to neutralisation of critical digital networks and waging disinformation campaigns, private companies can play an important role by providing niche non-kinetic competencies to fight hybrid wars. Tech-enabled platforms such as satellites and smart phones ensure secure communications and cyber operations, reinforcing their strategic importance in warfare. Their centrality in future hi-tech wars cannot be wished away by policy-makers and practitioners. The fact that private hi-tech companies are not subject to government bureaucracies or decision-making bodies makes it easier to identify, build and deploy critical technologies, to deter or defeat hybrid threats. 

On the downside, sharing of hi-end technologies between government and private sectors can be highly problematic, necessitating forging of strong public–private partnerships. Besides, the involvement of tech giants with trans-national interests in hybrid wars poses a serious risk of monopoly, manipulation and leverage of state institutions. For instance, Elon Musk’s vacillating role in the Ukraine War exposed the role and interests of global tech giants. The possibility of these mega hi-tech conglomerates becoming formidable geo-political vectors in future wars cannot be ruled out. 

Fighting Hybrid Wars

There might be a case to draw a distinction between traditional military capabilities and hybrid war-fighting competencies. While military capabilities are primarily those tangible assets required by a soldier to fight on the frontline, hybrid competencies are those niche kinetic and non-kinetic technologies that are essential to shape the battlespace to mount a successful offence or defence. These include AI-enabled hardware and software services allow prevention, detection and mitigation of cyber strikes. These are vital to provision secure communications and transparency on and beyond the battlefield, and steering the overall war effort in hybrid contexts. 

In Ukraine, the tech companies have thus far built and deployed these technologies at their own behest and cost. By doing so, these companies have signalled their arrival as independent actors for future hybrid wars. These companies have immense talent and resources available at their disposal. Governments and private companies might have to build a work culture to collaboratively analyse, detect or fight hybrid threats. Institutionalisation of public–private partnerships by participation of diverse stakeholders can be the key to handling hybrid threats to national security and integrity. 

In light of this new reality, the formation of hybridised military and civilian enterprises is an operational necessity. To fight hybrid wars, governments and militaries might have to themselves hybridize, implying a strong public–private partnership to field the required war-fighting capabilities and competencies. Several attempts are being made worldwide in this direction. Prominent amongst these include US Joint Cyber Defence Collaboration (JCDC), NATO’s Defence Innovation Accelerator (DIANA), EU’s Hub for Defence Innovations and others which promote a level-playing field for osmosis of ideas between the public and private enterprises to develop hybrid war-fighting technologies and competencies.2 Such collaborations would not only simplify and shorten the long-drawn procurement procedures, but also draw down the gestation periods in this fast-moving world of tech inventions and innovations.

Risks and Challenges

As hybridity shapes the future of warfare, the state’s ability to mount a successful defence against hybrid threats will not be possible without the wilful indulgence and support of tech giants. The Ukraine War has fundamentally changed the way tech companies will have to do business in the future. These tech giants will be under tremendous pressure by host governments to draw out consistent policies on handling and sharing of wartime information and data, while deferring to its own business interests. Also, since these hi-tech platforms can no longer remain neutral in war, nor allow themselves to be exploited by host governments, an acceptable balance of interests between the two sectors, i.e., government bureaucracies and corporates will have to be found. And as long as these companies do not undermine the sovereignty and security of the host state, there will be a win-win situation. 

However, the real challenge lies in building synergies of mutual interest between the two sectors, with some dilution to state authority or control. Alternatively, the other hard choice is to build or nationalise hybrid technologies which are crucial for national security. The Ukraine War highlights this dilemma.3 The Star-link outages during the war and Elon Musk’s veiled threats to stop funding the project have raised doubts on the reliability of tech giants, and in particular their ability to fathom and factor in today’s geopolitical drift. 

Building synergies will always be desirable choice. However, there are a few challenges. First, big tech corporations sometimes lack precise understanding on what drives inter-state rivalry, global risks and order. Though they do recruit accomplished experts from diverse professional backgrounds, there is always a possibility to misread geo-political trends and risks, in absence of insider inputs on governmental intent and information. Second, tech giants are intrinsically driven by strong business interests, and they tend to be less collaborative or synergistic, while working alongside host governments and militaries. And third, since these big conglomerates have trans-national and trans-continental interests, there is a possibility that their services could be constrained or compromised at behest of other interested powers.4 Mutual trust will therefore have to be an overarching factor to build synergies between the two sectors.

The Future of Hybrid Warfare

In the unfolding context of Ukraine, hybrid wars have gathered a new meaning altogether. When wars are transcending beyond borders and boundaries by way of strategic manipulation and targeting of ‘information infrastructure’, the tech giants are truly shaping the new rules and tools of warfare. Weaker powers with less money and firepower stand a good chance to win wars by exploiting world disorder with hi-tech niche platforms, rather than relying only on hard ‘metal on metal’ battles.5 Asymmetry favours the weak provided the weaker power in question is able to meld and mainstream the several security-related sub-cultures prevailing within the state, to think hybrid and harmonise between traditional capabilities and hi-tech competencies, to outsmart a capable military adversary. 

In the Indian context, there is a growing penchant amongst policy makers, military practitioners and security analysts to understand and contextualise hybrid warfare. Given India’s sheer territorial and maritime expanse and history of contested borders, hi-tech platforms, though militarily important for favourable battle outcomes, cannot be the ‘sole tools of choice’ in future conflict. Hybridity in warfare has important lessons for us in our western and northern territorial contexts.

Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Manohar Parrikar IDSA or of the Government of India.

*About the author: Lt Gen Harinder Singh, Retd, is Former DGMI and Commandant IMA. He has tenanted several important command and staff assignments in the Indian Army.

Source: This article was published by Manohar Parrikar IDSA

Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (MP-IDSA)

The Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (MP-IDSA), is a non-partisan, autonomous body dedicated to objective research and policy relevant studies on all aspects of defence and security. Its mission is to promote national and international security through the generation and dissemination of knowledge on defence and security-related issues. The Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (MP-IDSA) was formerly named The Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *