On New Years Day the Ukrainians struck a school in Makiivka the Russians used to house up to 500 soldiers. It was well behind the FEBA (forward edge of the battle area, the line of contact).
From Russian sources — meaning these are Russia’s numbers — the four projectile HIMARS attack resulted in substantial Russian casualties: 90 KIA and 300 WIA. I suspect they are greater.
How did the Ukrainians do this, Big Red Car?
Well, the answer is a tour de force on how a much smaller, scrappy nation can fight a much larger nation by using technology to create a meaningful advantage.
There is a distinct possibility the Ukrainians will emerge from this conflict as a tech war super power.
Palantir – who is Palantir?
To understand the role of technology on the Ukrainian battlefield, you have to start by understanding who Palantir is.
1. Palantir is an American public company founded by Peter Thiel and others in 2013. Go read their history. Worth your time.
They worked for the CIA and the DHS and combatted terrorists from the beginning. They are a huge enterprise.
2. The clearest description of its raison d’etre is this:
Palantir builds digital infrastructure for data-driven operations and decision making with products that serve as the connective tissue among an organization’s data, its analytics capabilities, and operational execution.
Flavor gigantic computing power with a heaping table spoon of AI and you have the basis for an incredible targeting package to kill the Russians far behind what they perceive as some mythical safety zone.
3. Palantir is often considered to be a secretive company because some of its initial funding came from the CIA’s VC arm and their initial clients had gigantic expectations of privacy and confidentiality.
4. Looked at another way — working our way toward their battlefield products — they are an aggregator of a number of different intelligence inputs the sum total of which provides immediately actionable operational mandates that go BOOM tight on target.
Battlefield intelligence is the secret sauce whereby a commander is able to effectively deploy his combat power to defeat the enemy on the battlefield based upon knowledge of the environment, the enemy’s intentions, tendencies, command, troop strength, and armaments.
It is a bloody complicated business and there are no perfect solutions. It is always a crap shoot.
As in any intel operation, it strives to be disciplined and focuses on collection, analysis, and planning wherein the battlefield intel is baked into the plan. There is, however, this thing called The Fog of War that makes it incredibly difficult to do with any precision.
What is different about this war is the myriad of sophisticated and rock stupid sources of useful intelligence.
The Russian barracks attack
The results of the attack on the Russian barracks in Makiivka speak for themselves, but the way that target was identified, analyzed, the munitions package was determined, and then executed is worth consideration.
In the field, the Ukrainians have the benefit of direct contact with the enemy, satellites (both military and commercial — huge role played by commercial satellites), drones, air recon, military signals monitoring, cell phone activity, and digital analysis of pictures which recognize the characteristics of enemy formations and actions.
In addition, the Ukrainians have human intelligence — spies and helpful citizens behind enemy lines.
The Ukrainians also have a network of communication satellites and internet provided by StarLink. This cannot be overstated. It is a huge consideration.
There is a lot of data that is time consuming to absorb and analyze. Well, maybe not.
Imagine the sequence went like this:
1. A Russian unit was identified by its sheer mass — 500 men suggests a battalion of 3-4 companies, likely understrength because of combat losses.
Rolling stock confirms the same thing.
2. The location of the unit — apparently used by the military since 2014, but frequently unoccupied — was identified by satellite and drone observation.
3. Once identified, the radio traffic was monitored.
A practiced ear can tell radio chatter between a headquarters and a subordinate unit, between a platoon and a company commander, and up the chain of command.
4. The thermal signature of vehicles and men can be used to identify concentrations of mass and gauge their magnitude.
5. In this particular instance, you do not have to imagine this — there was a myriad of intercepted cell phone chatter between soldiers and wives, girlfriends, and mothers.
I am certain the Russian commander either confiscated or forbade his soldiers from using cell phones whose signals provide pinpoint location data, but these were soldiers a good distance from the front lines enjoying a false sense of security who routinely defied their superiors and swapped a handful of phones around, sufficiently so to convince the Ukrainians that a rich target was located at the nexus of that traffic.
It was also New Years Eve and they were probably drunk.
6. The Ukrainians likely tasked a satellite or six to confirm the location (two dozen commercial satellites pass over Ukraine daily), study the vehicles — these satellites had infrared (can see through clouds) capabilities and tight (synthetic) aperture radar.
7. The Ukrainians may have had drones loitering in the neighborhood to confirm a third or fourth level of certainty.
8. There may have been a human asset who was able to photograph the building — a former school, so likely well known locally — and the Ukrainians could then use a number of products to recognize the building, the equivalent to data driven facial recognition.
Sounds like a Hell of a lot of work and a huge time investment with changing conditions.
How do you integrate all that bloody data, Big Red Car?
Ahhh, dear reader, you hire Palantir and they use a piece of software called MetaConstellation that does all the work instantly and provides a continuous readout of rich targets on the other side of the line of contact.
In addition, you use Elon Musk’s StarLink system to weave it all together in real time.
Once MetaConstellation shows up, all the inputs are automated, the data is integrated, the next action is suggested, and an actionable attack plan is created which is then sent downstream to a unit in the appropriate location to act.
Consider it like a dating service hooking up HIMARS with high quality targets, but instantly.
In this instance, a HIMARS unit moving down a road stopped in a field and fired off six missiles within five minutes of tasking. One assumes they took off down the road immediately thereafter.
Four of the missiles landed on the target and the Russian shot down two of the six.
The choice of the munition was clearly right as the building collapsed and much of the KIA/WIA was caused by the weight of the building atop the Orcs.
One more wrinkle
The HIMARS can fling a missile 50 nautical miles — this is what the Army admits to, but I am skeptical. These projectiles are GPS guided and insanely accurate.
I have seen reports that the US has authorized the ATACMS missile which can be launched from the same HIMARS launcher and can fly 190 nautical miles — again with pinpoint accuracy, but a much larger payload, meaning more BOOM!
Bottom line it, Big Red Car
Ukraine has been at war for almost a year. In that period of time, the US/Nato and others have begun to unleash a steady cornucopia of more capable weapons and technology that the Ukrainians use to great result.
The Russians have come late to the party as it relates to the physical siting of barracks, supply depots, ammunition distribution points, higher headquarters, artillery/missile concentrations, and rail heads.
Russian tech — clearly inferior to US/Nato capabilities — is bleeding out. The Russians are buying drones from Iran and missiles and artillery ammunition from North Korea.
As Ukraine capabilities, training, and experience increase, Russian capabilities are declining.
If the west will maintain a stiff upper lip and go the distance, the road will end with Ukraine throwing the Orcs out of their country and the international menace of Russia being compromised.
But, hey, what the Hell do I really know anyway? I’m just a Big Red Car.
Let’s send the ATACMS to Ukraine.