UK sees ‘incredible acceleration’ in military capabilities from Ukraine war
Defense companies are testing prototype arms and gear on eastern European battlefields.
ABOARD HMS PRINCE OF WALES — Supporting Ukraine has led to a sharp increase in the British military’s technological capabilities, thanks to captured Russian technology and Ukrainians' battlefield observations, Britain’s armed forces minister said.
Costly experience and the acid tests of combat have brought about an "incredible acceleration in Western military capability," James Heappey said while visiting the United States aboard the HMS Prince of Wales, a British aircraft carrier that put into Norfolk, Virginia, last week, in part to test F-35s.
Britain is learning from information shared by Ukraine, including data gained from compromised Russian equipment, Heappey said. Within days of Russia’s full-scale invasion in February 2022, Ukraine began to capture highly sophisticated Russian electronic warfare systems and other sensitive equipment.
Britain is also closely observing how donated British weapons and gear—cutting-edge prototypes as well as standard-issue kit—are performing on Ukrainian battlefields. (Poland is doing much the same with donated armored vehicles.)
"You learn very quickly what works and doesn't work,” said Heappey. “The pace of defense innovation within NATO countries is kind of where you expect it to be in wartime.”
Britain has led efforts to send more experimental equipment to Ukraine, in part through its International Fund for Ukraine, which has a mandate to procure “priority” equipment for the war-torn country by skipping the standard procurement process.
The fund has sent a variety of systems that have only been recently developed, such as MSI’s Terrahawk Paladin. The counter-drone system entered serial production in January, said product manager Robert Gordon at London arms show DSEI. The U.S. has also sent a variety of experimental or newly designed anti-drone systems to Ukraine.
Some UK companies are using reports from Ukrainian troops to improve their products far more quickly than would otherwise be possible, Heappey said.
“It turns out that these companies that were patiently working away with the British Army, on a sort of five-year horizon, were accessing the latest information on Russian [electronic warfare] capabilities," he said. The companies are “rapidly evolving their drone capability and getting it to the Ukrainians within five weeks.”
Battlefield observations are even changing the British military’s general concept of how future wars may be fought.
One key lesson, Heappey said, is that modern armies need to move away from perfectly engineered but easily destroyed weapons and instead focus on cheaper weapons whose sheer number and variation can overwhelm an adversary’s decision-making capabilities.
He pointed to Ukraine’s obliteration of one of Russia’s advanced S-400 anti-aircraft systems by using drones to attack radars before sending in cruise missiles.
The lesson for Britain is that “you don't have to blow billions of pounds’ worth of taxpayers money on everything being the most exquisite imaginable” weapon, he said.
The HMS Prince of Wales’ own namesake is in some ways a potent reminder of the need to keep pace with modern military technology. A World War II battleship built for an era of gunnery, the first Prince of Wales was sunk by Imperial Japanese airplanes mere days after it reached the Pacific.
Britain is looking for defense manufacturers to mimic the Ukraine weapons development experience, Heappey said, with an emphasis on speed, affordability, and quickly learning the lessons of the battlefield.
Britain is also working on making its own forces less vulnerable to the tactics that have taken out Russian forces, particularly the use of long-range precision weapons. Ukraine has routinely used a combination of intelligence and Western-donated long-range missiles to wipe out Russian supply dumps and headquarters.
In the future, the British military must “hide to survive,” Heappey said, echoing similar statements by U.S. officials. “If you’re found, you’re dead.”
Heappey pointed to Ukraine’s success in clearing Russian vessels from the Black Sea as evidence that Western support should go on.
“What's been happening in the Black Sea is every bit as significant as what was happening in Kharkiv Oblast last year,” he said, referring to swift Ukrainian territorial gains in September 2022. The wider donor community continues to believe Ukraine can win the war, Heappey said.
Amid some criticism of international efforts to train Ukrainian soldiers, Heappey said that Ukrainian contacts at all levels of Ukraine’s military had been happy with the types of training they’ve received from Britain.
The five-week program is far shorter than the 14-week bootcamp afforded the British Army’s own recruits. Ukraine’s urgent and continuing need for new troops forced UK trainers to pare training to the essentials, Heappey said.
“Fundamentally, what the Ukrainian Armed Forces is asking for is a set of basic infantry skills that give pretty new recruits…the best chance possible of surviving,” he said.