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In the War Against Russia, Some Ukrainians Carry AK-47s. Andrey Liscovich Carries a Shopping List

Oct 5, 2023 8:21 AM

In the War Against Russia, Some Ukrainians Carry AK-47s. Andrey Liscovich Carries a Shopping List

Kyiv enlisted a Silicon Valley insider to rush consumer-grade tech onto the battlefield. He’s giving a demo of the future of war: the military-retail complex.

A collection of pixelated military supplies on a bright red background

Illustration: Lena Weber; Getty Images

In hindsight, zhenya Podtikov realized, he should have known that Ukraine’s first Vector drone was not long for this world. But when it arrived at an army base in Lviv, in April 2022, he couldn’t help admiring it. “I was just surprised that drone hardware could look so good,” he said. The Vector came in pieces—its sharklike nose, sleek fuselage, and upright tail all polished to a tooth-enamel white. Its manufacturer, a German company called Quantum Systems, had designed the Vector so you could carry it, dismantled, in a backpack. Podtikov needed no tools and just a few minutes to unbox it, put it together, and send it up as a surveillance scout. Entirely on autopilot, it could take off, remain airborne for two hours, and return home, sending back rivers of encrypted video from as far as 20 miles away.

As a test pilot in the Ukrainian army, Podtikov was unaccustomed to such sophistication. He’d been flying drones since 2014—the year Russia annexed Crimea, the year he turned 18 and joined a unit of volunteers. All of the drones he’d launched were civilian models like the Vector, but they were lesser machines. One had to be propelled by catapult. The army’s only military-issue drones, a pair of lumbering aircraft left over from the Soviet era, didn’t even have digital cameras. “You had to have a separate room to develop their film,” Podtikov said, sounding as incredulous as any child of the 21st century.

On the front lines near Barvinkove, in eastern Ukraine, that first Vector lasted just two full flights; on the third flight, Ukrainian friendly fire took it down because the army’s radar units didn’t yet have a way to distinguish their own drones from Russia’s. Days later, a replacement unit took off toward enemy lines, but the Russians jammed its global navigation satellite system. Then the drone’s communications link with its pilot cut out. At this point, it should have abandoned its mission and navigated home, but without GNSS its sense of direction was thoroughly scrambled. The Vector flew north instead of south, right into Russian territory, and was never seen again. Frustrated, Ukraine’s drone pilots turned to the man who had helped procure the Vectors in the first place: a tech executive named Andrey Liscovich.

Liscovich is a strange, liminal figure produced by a novel sort of conflict. He is a civilian neck-deep in military work, a Silicon Valley emissary to battlefields beset by electronic warfare, a Thomas Friedman character cast into a Joseph Heller world. Having grown up in Zaporizhzhia, in eastern Ukraine, Liscovich went on to a PhD at Harvard and then a career in the San Francisco Bay Area. For a while, he was the CEO of Uber Works, an Uber offshoot that helped companies find on-demand staffing. When Russia invaded Ukraine, he moved back to Zaporizhzhia and, through circumstance more than intent, became a personal shopper for the Ukrainian army. He deals only in nonlethal equipment—merchandise that’s available off the shelf to everyone, or at most classified as “dual use,” suitable for both military and civilian applications. Generals and brigade commanders tell him what they need, and he roves the global tech souk, meeting manufacturers and inspecting their products. Then he cajoles wealthy friends or friendly nations to foot the bill and arranges for the matériel to be fetched to the front. In the year and a half since Russia invaded, he has wrangled everything from socks to sensors to Starlink terminals. The two downed Vectors were among his earliest acquisitions, paid for by a Ukrainian benefactor at more than $200,000 a pop.

Loosely speaking, Liscovich is an adviser to the general staff of the army, although the most he gets out of that is a military email ID. The army doesn’t compensate him for his service. Instead, Liscovich said, he cuts himself a paycheck out of donations from an American billionaire. (He wouldn’t say which one, but he assured me it was a household name.) He is one of at least 100 civilians who act as buying agents for Ukraine, an official in the general staff of the army told me. (The official asked to be anonymous: “Our government doesn’t like it when military people say something on the record without their permission.”) With its defense budget stretched thin, the Ukrainian government isn’t always willing to spring for “nonlethal things,” the official said. “They’re worried that if their partners pay for this, they’ll pay for fewer tanks or shells or HIMARS rocket launchers.” Civilian fixers are “a way to get around” this problem—and the official described Liscovich as the most effective of the bunch. “He’s out there on the front lines, asking questions, taking notes,” the official said. “He’s always doing his homework.” Since the war began, Liscovich has helped the army procure nearly $100 million in supplies. His is the kind of role that aristocrats played back in the 1800s, when their unelected influence extended to statecraft. Over the past century, as war became a nationalized state function, that species died out. Liscovich is a throwback: a Victorian with an iPhone.

Though Liscovich stays away from lethal technology, his ambit is vast. Never in the history of warfare has commercial technology played as big a role as it has in Ukraine, said Michael Brown, a former director of the US Department of Defense’s Defense Innovation Unit. In part, Brown said, this is because Ukraine’s army has been innovative and scrappy. (“Of course,” he admitted, “they have to be—this is existential for them.”) But it’s also the culmination of a long, slow-cooked reversal in the flow of technology. A few decades ago, defense researchers built shiny new things—GNSS, for instance, and Arpanet, a precursor of the internet—and eventually bequeathed them to the general population. Now, Brown said, commercial companies are faster and can develop consumer products so cutting-edge that armies would do well to use them. It isn’t just that defense departments move ponderously; the private sector is also awash in far more money. “If you go back to 1960, the military was 36 percent of global R&D spending,” Brown said. “Today it’s barely more than 3 percent.”

Window-shopping is the easy part, though. The wares on the civilian market may be first-rate technology, allowing their users to get close-to-military-grade gear without incurring as much bureaucracy or expense. But they come with a congenital problem: They’re designed for peacetime customers—for cops and academics, hobbyists and corporations. Under the rigors of a live, hot war, these products break down. Pickup trucks, of the kind driven around suburban America, last a week to 10 days when they’re trying to outrun shelling in areas with no roads, the Ukraine army official said. Portable batteries overheat in the summer sun. The cables and outer shells of Starlink terminals have proven too flimsy for the Ukrainian front, so soldiers have gotten used to swapping them out for more rugged alternatives. It often falls to Liscovich to act as a go-between, shuttling information from soldiers to manufacturers and back again, trying to get them to speak each other’s language so the equipment can be hardened for battle. In the summer of 2022, that meant, among other things, figuring out whether Zhenya Podtikov’s beloved Vector drones could ever survive in the treacherous, jammed-up airspace above eastern Ukraine.

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Liscovich sits on a truck after a delivery of more than 200 drones.

Liscovich sits on a truck after a delivery of more than 200 drones.

Photograph: Sasha Maslov

To the extent that Liscovich is based anywhere at all right now, it is in a hotel in Zaporizhzhia, where he rents two rooms—one for sleeping and another for working. The building is ugly, he freely admits. He has to use a portable heater in the winter, and summers are so sweltering that he works at night with the windows open, ignoring the gnats and flies that stream in. When Zaporizhzhia was being heavily bombarded last fall, Liscovich moved to a neighboring village, where he slept on hay in the cellar of a house. He still keeps his apartment in San Francisco’s Chinatown, although he spends barely two weeks a year there now. Sometimes he flips open an app and looks at his bedroom through a webcam: the bed made, the blinds drawn, the black-and-white image giving nothing away about whether it is night or day on the other side of the world. He’s a man laboring for his homeland without any real home of his own.

Liscovich’s duties take him away from Zaporizhzhia for weeks on end as he travels through the US and Europe, either to appraise companies’ products or to coax the powerful and wealthy to set aside more money for those products. Getting everyone on the same page, he said, “is like herding cats.” He has to be careful about these trips. He turns 40 next year, and under wartime law, no service-age man can leave the country on a business trip for more than 30 days at a time. (At least once he has found himself driving from Poland into Ukraine on day 30.) Fortunately for him, Liscovich appears to be one of nature’s born business travelers, built to fold his tall frame into an economy class seat, stride through airports with a wheelie bag that he never checks in, subsist on cold cuts from buffets, and demand Marriott Bonvoy upgrades after arriving at a hotel in the dead of night. He packs a uniform: jeans, sneakers, a number of button-down shirts (rarely tucked), and a blue blazer. The pocket inside his blazer bulges with a mobile hot spot, into which he slips one of several local SIM cards. That enables him to keep his phone on airplane mode and use the hot spot for Wi-Fi, he said. “It’s to avoid anyone tracking my location.”

In mid-June, I accompanied Liscovich on one of his succinct tours: five cities, four countries, four days. We met up outside Athens in the Greek seaside town of Xylokastro, where a company called Velos Rotors makes drones that look like miniature helicopters. Started by a hobbyist named Aris Kolokythas, Velos occupies the third floor of a short, utterly ordinary building—a space so small it seemed capable of assembling drones at only an artisanal pace. Everywhere we went, in fact, we sat in conference rooms in nondescript office blocks or business parks. The vaunted, hulking might of the military-industrial complex was nowhere in sight.

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A few mini-choppers, Velos V3s, had already gone out to Ukrainian brigades on the front lines. But their data links were frequently taken offline by Russian jammers, the scourge of pilots like Podtikov. Most civilian drones flail in the face of such interference; Ukraine loses between 1,000 and 10,000 drones every month, many of them jammed into oblivion. On a schematic map that Liscovich stores as an image on his phone, he showed me how the front is choked with jamming signals. He’d come to Xylokastro to ask how Velos could make its drones less jammable—a particularly tricky proposition in Europe, where companies find it nearly impossible to obtain permits to activate jammers for testing.

Kolokythas, it turned out, was working on a new flight mode. If a drone’s GNSS was blocked, he wanted its pilot to be able to fly it home using tools that weren’t susceptible to jamming—barometers, gyroscopes, and other parts of an inertial navigation system. “Well, that’s excellent,” Liscovich replied, sounding cautious. In the army’s experience, he said bluntly, nearly every vendor misrepresents the specs of their drone. The two talked some more about antennas manufactured in Turkey and gimbal cameras before Liscovich asked how quickly the company could turn out a big order. That gave the Velos people pause. “If someone goes, ‘Hey, here’s an order for 500, I need them in nine months,’ well, obviously we’re not going to do them here, right?” said CEO Michael Seal, gesturing around his spare headquarters. They’d have to outsource production to other firms, which would need six or nine months to ramp up, Seal said.

Scale is one of Liscovich’s nagging problems. As a matter of survival, Ukraine’s army needs many things very quickly, but startups and other civilian manufacturers are often too puny to meet its urgent demands—or, for that matter, to find solutions to the electronic warfare raging at the front. (According to Podtikov, some firms learned about GNSS-blocking only after their drones failed test flights in Ukraine. Others flat-out denied that their drones could be jammed at all.) On occasion, companies simply walk away, deciding they would rather not retool their gear for a large wartime order that may never come—that they would rather just keep selling drones to the Walmart shoppers seeking crisp aerial shots of their Sunday barbecue.

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After an hour in their offices, Kolokythas and Seal drove us out of Xylokastro, up a road that snaked to the top of a scrubby hill. On the red earth, one of their engineers set up a workbench and primed the Velos V3 for a demo—a pretty if pointless exercise, because no one really doubted it could fly, only whether it could fly when Russians were hacking its GNSS. Below the hill, beyond ranks of lemon and olive trees, the Gulf of Corinth lay ironed flat on a still day. Behind us, Kolokythas said, gesturing vaguely over the horizon, was Sparta. Or, to be precise, the ruins of the Spartan civilization, once the most powerful of all Greek city-states until it fell to Rome. Historians propose several reasons for the Spartans’ collapse, including an outdated military. They had once been “craftsmen of war,” the historian George Cawkwell wrote, but they’d fallen behind and been swallowed. “New ways of war had outdone them.”

Liscovich grew up in Ukraine during the thaw in the Cold War. He remembers the shops being so bare that “you’d see a 3-liter jug of birch tree juice and maybe seaweed preserves, or something else that no one wanted, and nothing else.” Perestroika was in the air. The Soviet Union fell apart just as he entered primary school. Among other transformations that eventually took place in Zaporizhzhia, a bomb shelter turned into an internet café. Teenage gamers locked themselves into the shelter overnight for marathon sessions of StarCraft and Counter-Strike. Liscovich didn’t play much. Instead, he set himself up as a vendor of essentials: StarCraft maps downloaded in advance, snacks, his grandmother’s homemade wine, and other nonlethal supplies for these cyberspace soldiers.

After studying physics and economics for six years in Moscow, Liscovich went to Harvard for a public policy doctorate in 2007. He wrote his thesis on experimental economics—the arduous trials that economists run, in which they set up human subjects in simulated real-world situations and study their behavior and motivations. In one chapter, Liscovich suggested that economists could use ready-made video games to run some of this research. You could buy a mid-list game’s source code for not very much money and rewire its internal logic to function as an economics experiment, Liscovich explained to me. “Take a poker game and change the meanings of individual cards,” he said. “Or it could be, like, competitive rice-growing.” He remembers this as his first brush with the notion of dual use. Why should an economist—or a military, for that matter—reinvent the wheel when perfectly serviceable wheels can be purchased quite cheaply next door? “I just take something from one area and apply it in another,” Liscovich said. “Interdisciplinary arbitrage is a very powerful thing.”

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He speaks like this often, in solemn sentences that could have been plucked from the Harvard Business Review or a Silicon Valley pitch deck. Fresh out of his PhD, Liscovich joined Shuddle, a now-defunct “Uber-for-kids” service, before joining the real Uber and rising to become head of Uber Works. It can be easy to mistake him for a dour man with an unyielding sense of corporate purpose, but he is mightily amused by bureaucratic absurdities and has an intermittent, impish sense of humor. As befits a former Uber executive, he hates taking ordinary taxis, regarding them as inefficient and exorbitant. Once, in Munich, we spotted an ad for an app called Die Taxi painted on the doors of a city cab. “A very appropriate name for a taxi app,” Liscovich said. “Finally we concur.” He took a photo, then gave himself over to gales of giggles.

After Uber Works shut down, early in the pandemic, Liscovich started planning new startups. He was visiting Nepal toward the end of January 2022 when the rumors of Russia’s impending invasion of Ukraine escalated. Counterintuitively, he flew to Moscow. He wanted to see his friends from university before a war made that impossible. The US had warned that the invasion could start on February 16, so Liscovich spent the night of the 15th in a hotel facing the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on Smolensk Square to see whether the windows were bright with hectic overnight work. They weren’t. Then he moved to a hotel room on the 89th floor of a building overlooking the Kremlin and the Ministry of Defense to see whether they were churning with activity. They weren’t. Eventually he left Moscow, reaching San Francisco on the 22nd. Two days later, Russian forces marched into Ukraine.

Once more, Liscovich swam against the current. As thousands of Ukrainians, including his parents, fled westward, he flew to southeastern Poland. He rode a fire truck to the border, caught a train and a succession of buses, then walked the rest of the way to Zaporizhzhia. He fully intended to enlist, but at the army office he saw a long line of new soldiers wearing jeans, thin sweaters, and sneakers. Beyond giving each man an AK-47 and some spare magazines, the army had run out of gear. If Liscovich wanted to help, the colonel in charge of the army office said, he could get supplies. “He gave me a van and two soldiers, and they drove me around various military surplus stores,” Liscovich said. He showed me photos of long, itemized receipts of his purchases: winter boots, heavy clothing, tins of food, cell phones and tablets, tires. He swiped his Apple Pay everywhere in those early days, spending either his own money or contributions that friends and acquaintances made to the Ukraine Defense Fund, a nonprofit he’d quickly set up.

During the chaos of the war’s early months, Liscovich had to improvise to get his purchases across the border. The first batch of tech he sourced overseas consisted of Motorola radios—98 of them, bought from a store in London and flown to Kyiv by diplomatic pouch. They took a week to arrive. When Liscovich obtained 10 Starlinks from a warehouse in Warsaw, he had volunteers drive them into Ukraine in their cars, hoping customs authorities wouldn’t check their trunks. Such drivers were hard to find: Europeans refused to go into Ukraine, and younger Ukrainian men were being pressed into service, so Liscovich and his colleagues had to round up senior citizens to make their supply runs. Drivers sometimes spent days in line at border posts and crossed well after dark, when paperwork problems were much harder to solve. “I would often have to do these middle-of-the-night calls or pull strings at customs, asking them to let people through and saying I’d provide paperwork later in the day,” Liscovich said. At checkpoints, “there was a lot of fear that if you carry something quasi-military, like drones, your cargo may be impounded,” he said. Polish authorities started to demand extra paperwork for drones en route to the front: special permits, customs duties, transit declarations. At its peak, the Ukraine Defense Fund had 30 volunteers on Slack micromanaging every step of these supply chains. “It was just a huge mess,” Liscovich said.

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Eventually, the broken, brittle links in these supply chains were mended. The devices and software that streamed in from the West have been of undeniable value—because they’re inexpensive, but also because they arrive quickly. “Some war technology is military grade, so it’s limited by export controls, and it can take a long time to get licenses and permissions to bring them over,” Yegor Dubynskyi, Ukraine’s deputy digital minister, told me. “We don’t have that kind of time. We need things right now.” The Ukrainian army, he added, was cobbled together out of men who may have lacked military training but often had experience with civilian tech—certainly enough to follow a radio or drone manual. “The approach was: If you find something you can use, use it.”

At the same time, these products could rarely be deployed perfectly out of the box. Conditions on the eastern front were so different from those in California or Munich that it may as well have been another planet. In the beginning, Liscovich tried to school himself in the demands of war by reading, but one book after another quoted Sun Tzu or Clausewitz—thinkers with plenty of timeless advice for commanders but not much knowledge of 21st-century supply chains. The US Department of Defense’s models on military provisioning, likely of more practical use, are classified. So he took to hanging out at command posts and with battalions, trying to learn what soldiers needed and why.

He saw how the troops disassembled Starlink terminals, put them into stronger cases, and mounted them on vehicles for portable internet. He saw how sensors that detected enemy drones, which usually worked on 4G signals, went quiet in regions with no cellular connectivity, and how engineers had to run a communication wire all the way out to the sensors on the front to get them working again. He saw a batch of Tesla Powerwalls arrive for power storage, only for soldiers to realize that they all had built-in Wi-Fi modules that the enemy could potentially detect and that had to be manually pried out. And time after time, he saw drones lost—shot down, confused over enemy lines, or simply incommunicado. On his phone, he showed me a video of a drone with a jammed GNSS that had somehow been guided back to base. It hovered a few meters in the air, and then, fooled into thinking it was on the ground, switched off its rotors and crashed to earth as if made of stone. Any device that had to work in Ukraine required the ultimate customization: a system to foil the people and machines bent on destroying it.

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Illustration: Lena Weber; Getty Images

For all his self-prescribed study of the military, Liscovich asks companies the kinds of questions that have been burnished over years by the venture capitalists on Sand Hill Road. What are the bottlenecks? What will help you deliver more value per dollar? What is stopping you from making 10 times more impact? He has not only the tech executive’s fixation on speed and scale—invaluable in wartime—but the latent wariness of government. For him, the state’s chief wartime virtue is not its efficiency or its powers of organization but its pocketbook. Around the time I met him, he was lobbying the US Congress to allocate a budget to fund nonlethal technology for Ukraine. (His fundraising and lobbying work have required him to register as a foreign agent, acting on behalf of Ukraine’s government.) That aside, Liscovich appears to believe that the state slows things down and complicates them, and that companies and private individuals do a superior job—not only in running taxis but also in arming Ukraine. In the Warsaw offices of an aerial intelligence company called Radio Bird, while bemoaning a particular inefficiency that had crept into the border controls between Poland and Ukraine, Liscovich trotted out that old Reagan saw: “What do they say about the most scary words in the English language? ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help.’”

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Radio Bird had helped build one of the crossover tech products that Liscovich was most impressed by, and during our visit the product’s inventor, whom I will call Alex, Zoomed in. Alex, a Ukrainian physicist who asked to remain anonymous out of concern for possible retaliation, is a professor at a research university in the Netherlands. When the war began, he enlisted some friends and colleagues to develop a sensor for incoming missiles. The sensor consists of a basic microphone—like the kind worn on lapels during talks—that feeds its input into a smartphone, where software compares the audio to a preloaded set of acoustic signatures of Russian drones and missiles. If it detects something, it sends an alert with its position and what it thinks it heard. Liscovich says there are now 6,000 of these sensors in Ukraine. Dubynskyi, the deputy digital minister, said they were crude but successful, although he didn’t specify how many missile attacks they helped avert. Liscovich now wanted Radio Bird and Alex to work on a tethered drone: a drone powered by a line from the ground, staying up indefinitely, scanning the airspace for danger.

The threat posed by Russian GNSS jamming hasn’t gone away, but some drone manufacturers are finding ways to diminish it. Two days after Warsaw, Liscovich and I went to the Munich headquarters of Quantum Systems, the manufacturer of that early pair of doomed Vectors. Quantum, whose offices lie beside a highway leading out of the city, has sold dual-use drones to the police forces of Los Angeles and Bavaria and to German rail companies. By now I’d become familiar with European drone company chic—ascetic interiors, unadorned walls, huge windows that bathed rooms in light on fine summer days—but Sven Kruck, Quantum’s chief sales officer, stopped outside the CEO’s office to point out an unusual accessory: a Ukraine flag hanging behind the desk.

After the first Vectors failed on the front, the Ukrainians sent Quantum their notes—but it was nothing like the tidy, structured feedback that tech companies ordinarily receive. Communications took weeks to make the trip to Munich and back, Kruck said. The drone operators passed their comments up to their leaders, who sent them upward and upward until they were finally sent to Quantum via the Ministry of Defense. “We got a letter saying, ‘Change this, this, this, this, this, and this. If not, you’re out,’” Kruck said. He had served in Afghanistan and encountered electronic warfare before, but nothing like what was going on in Ukraine. Quantum needed more than a letter. It needed flight logs, videofeeds, and telemetry data, all in a much tighter response loop with the end users, the drone pilots.

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Liscovich holds a hobbyist drone that will be deployed on the front lines.

Liscovich holds a hobbyist drone that will be deployed on the front lines.

Photograph: Sasha Maslov

For Liscovich to be the courier of this information was insufficient. When he visited Quantum in October 2022, he found he couldn’t be precise enough about the problems pilots were encountering. “They had an issue with the battery duration indicator, which was jumping around,” Liscovich said, by way of an example. At Quantum, they asked him: Under what conditions did this issue occur? But Liscovich hadn’t seen it for himself. Eventually, Quantum’s engineers were added to a Signal group with Ukraine’s drone pilots so they could speak directly to each other. With the pilots’ help, Quantum realized last winter that if the Russians jammed a Vector’s satellite navigation, pilots could radio their own stable coordinates to the drone, allowing it to orient itself. The Vectors also began using onboard lidar sensors to check their altitude so that they stopped plummeting to earth, and Kruck’s colleagues are experimenting with a visual navigation system to work in tandem with GNSS. Out of the first 40 drones that Quantum sent to Ukraine, it lost 15 or 20, Kruck said. In January 2023, it sent another 100-odd Vectors, and it has since lost only five. Just before I met Kruck, Ukraine had ordered another 300 drones, and Quantum had posted six of its engineers, pilots, and support technicians to its new service and training center in Ukraine. “This is a cat-and-mouse game,” Kruck said. “It really matters how fast your iteration cycle is.”

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Quantum’s story sounded like rousing progress when it was narrated in a comfortable conference room in Munich. But Liscovich knows how easily these undertakings can wilt. An army and a tech company are culturally different: the first lumbering, cautious, and preoccupied with compliance, the second obsessed with moving fast and breaking things. To get them to talk to each other is difficult, Liscovich said. In fact, soldiers were sometimes reluctant to tell even him about the problems they were facing. In the summer of 2022, after Liscovich supplied a battalion with a few drones made by a US company called Skydio, a commander sent him a thermal-camera video showing a Russian tank being blown up. A Skydio had helped find the tank and had taken the video, the commander said. Pleased with this, Liscovich helped procure several more of the same model—only to find, after a couple of months, that the video was from another source altogether, and that Ukraine’s cellular network interfered so thoroughly with that particular Skydio model that the drones lost connectivity as soon as they went up. “They wanted me to feel like I’d made some kind of difference,” Liscovich said.

“That’s quite sweet, actually,” I told him.

“It’s incredibly counterproductive,” he shot back. “It’s not accomplishing anything. It resulted in a massive waste of resources.”

For a staunch advocate of the private sector, Liscovich also let slip flashes of exasperation at how corporate corporations can be. Sometimes a company isn’t willing to commit to testing its products in Ukraine or investing in service centers and training resources in the country unless it knows big orders are in store. In the final analysis, this was Quantum’s motivation too, Liscovich said. Being on the same side of a war, it turned out, was no assurance at all of being in sync.

In the most-watched war in recent history, Ukraine’s alacrity at filling the gaps in its military resources with civilian products has prompted other governments to rethink their own laggard adoption of commercial technology. European officials have chewed over how to nurture startups that might, one day, offer the kind of rapid, inexpensive communications alternatives that Starlink did in Ukraine. Taiwan set out to buy thousands of new drones off the market to counter Chinese air power. And in the US, the Defense Innovation Unit, a long-neglected office founded in 2015 to help the military adopt commercial technology, has enjoyed renewed interest from the Pentagon.

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Historically, and famously, the US military’s purchasing apparatus has been riddled with inertia. “The whole process is designed to buy an aircraft carrier that will keep for 50 years,” said Raj Shah, a former DIU director. Even as the military’s technological needs expanded beyond the lethal and the gigantic, the Pentagon was slow to respond, another former DIU staffer said. In the DIU’s early years, people entrenched in their jobs came to seem like barriers to the unit’s work, and its funding languished. The staffer quit, he said, because he “didn’t have the energy to push anymore.”

This year, the DIU got a new director—a former Apple vice president—and a budget of $112 million, more than double the $43 million it received last year. The US House Appropriations Committee wants to lavish even more money on the office, as much as $1 billion. Mike Madsen, a strategic adviser to the DIU’s director, attributes part of this new energy to Pentagon officials “watching the speed with which Ukraine has been able to deploy this kind of technology.” The eastern front is a live laboratory, and every military’s eyes are fixed on it.

But the war is also shifting in a direction that leads away from Liscovich and his efforts. In the fear and shock of the first few months, “speed was paramount,” said Stephen Biddle, a defense policy scholar at Columbia University. Any technology, procured in any way at all, that kept Ukraine in the fight for another day was welcome. But coordinating artillery strikes over WhatsApp and Signal, for instance, was hardly ideal. “Over time, I’d still be concerned about hacking and security,” Biddle said. Similarly, the rate at which Ukraine has lost its off-the-shelf drones has been staggeringly high, he said. While that damage was once tolerable, it has felt increasingly inefficient as the military digs in for the long haul.

Biddle also argued that the cumbersome pace of government, which the tech industry gripes about, has a purpose: It keeps officials accountable to the people who elect them. This is “particularly necessary in Ukraine, where you have a massive problem of corruption,” he said. While Liscovich and others like him—“the heroic entrepreneurs of the early period”—have been vital, he said, the Ukrainian state has to take over their work to ensure efficient long-term spending. (Yegor Dubynskyi, Ukraine’s deputy digital minister, said something similar. “We have to start buying these things through a governmental approach, and we have to think about building specific testing grounds of our own and equipping them, even though this will take a little time.”) I wondered how Liscovich would react to that, and then recalled that he’d told me, very firmly, “I don’t plan to do this forever.” He has a startup to build and other ideas to chase. He gave me the impression that he’d be glad to hand his beat back to Ukraine’s defense ministry, to whom it belonged in the first place. “I’m just doing it now because it needs to be done.”

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Illustration: Lena Weber

On the last day of our trip, Liscovich and I took a taxi out to the headquarters of a “drone defense” company called Dedrone, in Kassel. (To his disappointment, Uber didn’t operate in the city.) Before breakfast, he’d been browsing a Signal group of Ukrainian drone pilots, and he was worried by their speculation that the Russians were learning how to jam a particular drone’s radio link. Dedrone was part of a strategy to do unto the Russians as they were doing unto Ukraine. More than 100 Dedrone sensors had been installed around the front, each capable of identifying and detecting the radio signatures of nearly 250 models of drones. Ordinarily, the sensors resemble white buckets on a pole, and facilities like power plants and prisons buy them to discourage aerial snooping and delivery of contraband. For a live war zone, though, they had to be painted a much more inconspicuous shade of milky latte. A team in Kyiv now manages a network of these sensors all along the front, including in Donbas and Zaporizhzhia. In one case, Liscovich said, a sensor close to the front had managed to latch on to a radio signal from a drone operator on the other side. He’d been standing by an ammunition silo, although the Ukraine army didn’t know that when they decided to shell him. “They tried to hit the operator, but they blew up the storage of ammo,” Liscovich said. “There was a massive explosion … I have a video of this.” It was as pleased as he’d sounded all day.

A few weeks later, I read that a Russian missile had hit one of the few hotels in Zaporizhzhia, killing one person and injuring at least 16. In dread, I texted Liscovich, and then fretted for half a day until he replied. It wasn’t his hotel, he said, and in any case, he wasn’t in Zaporizhzhia. He was headed back out of the country and had stopped for a day and a half in Lviv, in western Ukraine, to visit another drone company. He knew some investors who might want to fund its development of a new product: a low-cost tactical plane. It was, he thought, something Ukraine could use.

Updated 10-05-23, 1pm EST: This piece has been updated to protect the safety of a source.


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