Ukraine has benefited from commercial technologies developed for U.S. military and other federal government use through the Pentagon’s Defense Innovation Unit (DIU)–technologies that include synthetic aperture radar (SAR) and artificial intelligence (AI)-enabled batle damage assessment, according to Michael Brown, the director of DIU.

Founded in 2015, the Silicon Valley-headquartered DIU aims to bring in start-ups and smaller companies to work with the Pentagon on six emerging technology areas–space, AI, autonomy, cyber, human systems, and energy. Brown has headed DIU since 2018.

“I think we’re seeing the character of warfighting changing before our eyes,” Brown told a Center for a New American Security virtual forum on June 22. “And we’re seeing Russia field a 20th century industrialized force. Granted, they have other problems–the use of conscripts, the very low morale, the corruption in their system which has probably bled off a lot of the dollars that were allocated for modernizing that force. So we’re seeing that force come up against a technology-savvy country [Ukraine], obviously with incredible commitment but that is using commercial technology to asymmetric effect.”

The U.S. intelligence community has made extensive use of commercial, unclassified satellite imagery to aid Ukrainian forces (Defense Daily, Apr. 25). Most of the satellite imagery is based on electro-optical (EO) camera sensors but in poor weather and at night, these systems aren’t helpful, unlike SAR.

The National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), which contracts with the commercial satellite providers, has purchased some SAR imagery to help Ukraine. Sandra Auchter, the director of the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency, has said that the U.S. has been able to provide Ukraine with commercial imagery for use within minutes of collection.

“Commercial satellite imagery–we started working at DIU on synthetic aperture radar five years ago with some of the vendors developing that technology,” Brown said. “Now we have capability through these commercial satellites in low Earth orbit to see in a different type of sensor than our optical government satellites, that allows us to get pretty good resolution down to a third of a meter. The radar images give you pretty good fidelity to where are Russian forces. We’ve not only provided great strategic awareness through that–this is fielded through the NRO–but the commanders we’ve brought through, this commercial capability is also being made available to Ukrainians for tactical advantage. One of the great things about using commercial technology is it can be shared easily with allies and partners.”

Brown said that Ukraine has also been able to use AI-sorted SAR imagery for battle damage assessment–a capability developed through DIU by Orbital Insight, Inc. in 2020 for viewing the extent and severity of damage after hurricanes and wildfires.

DIU has tested and approved some 50 commercial technologies for DoD and other federal government use. Other DIU-tested technologies used by Ukraine include small drones and secure communications, “which many of the Russian generals wish they had that use their cell phone, which they didn’t realize was gonna be a geo-locating device on their whereabouts,” Brown said.