Lessons from Ukraine and China for the DoD by Steve Blank

Revolutionary Changes in National Security: the Role of Commercial Technology in the Ukraine Conflict

Satellite Imagery and Analysis

The availability of satellite imagery for commercial use is a game-changer in the field of national security. Decades ago, only the government had access to detailed pictures of the earth, and such images were classified. But with the emergence of startups and scaleups today, commercial companies now provide unclassified imagery. As a result, the government purchases and distributes commercial images from startups to supplement their own. There will be 1000 commercial satellites for every US government satellite in orbit by the end of this decade. Startups such as Capella Space have satellites in orbit that specialize in gathering data by taking detailed pictures of the Earth.

Satellite Communications

Satellite communications is one of the significant areas in which startups and scaleups are making an impact in national security. In response to Russia’s cyber attack on Viasat’s KA-SAT satellite, Elon Musk’s Starlink satellite company shipped thousands of their satellite dishes to Ukraine to restore their internet connection. Other portable cell towers are also now available, including “backpackable” and fixed devices that can connect to satellites and provide phone service and WiFi capability. These are crucial in areas where there is no available internet connection.

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs)

The technology behind unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) is no longer the exclusive use of national governments and militaries. Today, they are democratised and available for purchase online. In Ukraine, startups use drones for automated delivery vehicles for resupply, and tactical reconnaissance to identify potential threats. Combined with commercial satellite imagery, these drones provide pinpoint accuracy, enabling maximum kinetic impact in halting opposing forces.

Low-Cost Emerging Commercial Technology

Emerging commercial technologies have transformed the balance of power in national security conflicts. In Ukraine, low-cost commercial technology has proven more effective against a larger industrialised force, which Russia is fielding. While traditional military contractors and other countries provide some equipment, startups that develop and deliver off-the-shelf technology at dramatically lower prices are playing a significant role. Technology such as drones, AI, machine learning, autonomy, biotech, cyber, semiconductors, quantum, and high-performance computing are all examples of commercial technology that has changed the character of war.

The Role of Defense Innovation Unit

The Defense Innovation Unit (DIU) is the Department of Defense’s most successful organisation in acquiring and promoting commercial technology. However, despite being critical, the DoD cut the DIU’s budget by 20%, thereby hindering its productivity. In Congress’s Future of Defense Task Force report two years ago, they recommended a suggestion to increase the DIU’s budget by ten times. This is crucial, given that the Department of Defense should scale up the DIU by ten times because national security is now dependent on commercial technology.

China – Civil Military Fusion

China has been involved in a Civil/Military Fusion program since 2015. Beijing is developing as a national effort for the PRC to develop a “world-class” military and become a world leader in science and technology. A substantial chunk of this strategy includes acquiring advanced dual-use technology. China is mobilising its entire economy – commercial and military suppliers for this. On the other hand, the Pentagon and its relationship with startups and commercial companies is hindered by a lack of understanding about how the commercial innovation ecosystem works and the inability to comprehend what venture and private equity funded innovation can offer.

Reinvention of the Civil/Military Innovation Relationship

It’s essential to reinvent the civil/military innovation relationship. This includes reorganising DoD Research and Engineering to allocate its budget and resources equally between traditional sources of innovation and new commercial sources of innovation. It also involves reorganising DoD Acquisition and Sustainment to create and buy from new arsenals, including shipyards, drone manufacturers etc, that can make thousands of extremely low-cost, attritable systems. This way, the government, with the assistance of startups, can keep up with adversaries and create new national champions of the next generation of defense technologies.


The Ukraine conflict reveals the changing character of war; low-cost emerging commercial technology is highly effective against larger industrialised forces. National security now depends on commercial technology. To stay ahead, the Department of Defense must abandon its traditional sources of innovation and start investing in new entrants and commercial tech. Revolutionising its civil/military innovation relationship is not optional but rather necessary to keep up with adversaries.

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