War by app: How Peter Thiel’s software helps Ukraine shell Russian targets
Never before has a war been waged more digitally than the current conflict in Ukraine. In addition to rockets, artillery shells and tank ammunition, the defenders benefit above all from high-end technology – including software from US billionaire Peter Thiel.
The Ukrainian armed forces pull out all the stops when it comes to defending their country. The backbone of the army is of course weapons, tanks and heavy war equipment from all over the world. But technology also played an unprecedented role in the invasion of Ukraine. Behind enemy lines and on the front lines, for example, e-bikes (Ukrainian army uses e-bikes as anti-tank weapons) and drones (Russia defends against Ukraine drone attacks) have proven to be important tools, but also soldiers with tablets can do great damage.
It is known that Ukraine has been dependent on Spacex satellite internet since day one of the invasion (this is how Elon Musk’s satellites help attack Russian tanks). And while Elon Musk has proven to be a moody ally on multiple occasions, the importance of his digital lifeline cannot be denied.
Live battlefield maps via app
But Spacex is not the only company supporting Ukraine with tactical hardware and software. Palantir, the controversial company owned by US billionaire Peter Thiel, also plays a major role at the front. As CEO Alex Karp recently told Reuters, his software is “responsible for most of the targeting in Ukraine.” Targeting means finding and targeting important targets, such as Russian tanks or artillery.
According to the Washington Post, Palantir’s contribution to the war was the free distribution of software called “Metaconstellation.” The company writes cryptically on the company’s website: “Use the power of the satellite constellations to support the decision-makers on earth.”
What does that mean: As a data-focused company, Palantir is able to combine information from satellites, but also thermal sensors and reconnaissance drones into a clear picture of the front. A kind of real-time map is available to the Ukrainian soldiers on a tablet, virtually via an app, which marks Russian targets on the battlefield and makes them easier targets for long-distance shelling.
But that’s not all: Palantir not only uses satellite images from companies such as Maxar Technologies to compile the information, but also searches through images of private individuals, such as residents or spies. The images are either fed directly or obtained from social media. From this, Palantir then builds a simple map based on tons of complex information.
In use, this software is then apparently equipped with additional modules that enable the decision-makers at the front to decide on the type of imminent destruction – whether drone, rocket or artillery fire – if a target is successfully found. There is currently no automatic decision – the ethical questions that arise when machines are allowed to decide over human lives are too large and complex. Palantir knows that too.
“War of the Wizards”
The Washington Post recently dubbed the war in Ukraine the “Magicians’ War.” A nod to the fact that much of what happens on the battlefield in past wars would have amounted to the use of literal magic. Today it’s really just about using what’s there. US journalist David Ignatius writes that if Ukraine continues like this, Russia will lose the war. Because on the other side there is apparently no corresponding equipment.
HIMARS, Leopard 2 and Co.
Which country supplies which weapons to Ukraine?
General Mark A. Milley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, explained the situation to the US daily as follows: “Resilience, will and the use of modern technology give the Ukrainians a decisive advantage. We are witnessing the way wars in the years to come be led and won.”
Company boss Alex Karp also has his say in the report. He writes: “The power of advanced algorithmic warfare systems is now so great that it rivals an adversary with only conventional nuclear weapons. The general public tends to underestimate this. Our adversaries no longer do.”
Powerful private companies
The interference of private companies with such powerful software is not without controversy. Especially since Palantir has always had to face criticism, since founder Peter Thiel has publicly known as a Trump fan and, as a libertarian, puts personal freedom above democracy.
The question arises as to whether such partners do not act unpredictably at an inopportune time – as Musk almost proved when asked about the financing of his Internet connections (Elon Musk now wants to take over Starlink’s costs for Ukraine after all).
Vanessa Vohs, AI expert at the Bundeswehr University in Munich, explained in the “Tagesspiegel” that such a development could become a problem in the long term. At the same time, however, it cannot be expected that future conflicts will be unimaginable without artificial intelligence – because nothing can process large amounts of data more efficiently and clearly.
Sources: Reuters, daily mirror, Washington Post, Palantir
Fast, agile, deadly: Ukrainian army uses e-bikes as anti-tank weapons
Starlink as a strategic tool: How Elon Musk’s satellites help attack Russian tanks