WASHINGTON – Capella Space, a San Francisco-based startup, is building a fleet of small, inexpensive satellites that can track enemy troops as they move at night, or under cloud cover that traditional optical satellites cannot see through.
Fortem Technologies, a small aerospace company in Utah, wants to supply the Pentagon with a new type of unmanned aircraft that can disable enemy drones.
HawkEye 360, a Virginia-based firm, has used private equity funds to launch its own satellites that use radio waves emitted by cellphones and other electronic devices to detect the presence of enemy troop concentrations.
Each of these systems is getting real-world testing in the war in Ukraine, earning praise from top government officials there and validating investors who have been pouring money into the field.
But they are facing a stiff challenge on another field of battle: the Pentagon's slow-moving, risk-averse military procurement bureaucracy.
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When it comes to drones, satellites, artificial intelligence and other fields, startup companies frequently offer the Pentagon cheaper, faster and more flexible options than the weapons systems produced by the handful of giant contractors the Pentagon normally relies on.
But while the military has provided small grants and short-term contracts to many startups, those agreements often expire too quickly and are not large enough for young companies to meet their payrolls – or grow as rapidly as their venture capital investors expect. Several have been forced to lay people off, delaying progress on new technologies and war-fighting tools.
As the United States seeks to maintain its national security advantage over China, Russia and other rivals, Pentagon leaders are only beginning to figure out how to bring a Silicon Valley ethos to the lumbering military industrial complex.
"This kind of change doesn't always move as smoothly or as quickly as I'd like," Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin conceded during a speech in December before a crowd in Simi Valley, California, that included executives from many startup technology companies.
Industry executives refer to their situation as the "Valley of Death," where the slow pace of government contracting can lead them to bleed out their funding while they await decisions.
One San Francisco-based startup, Primer Technologies, makes an AI tool that analyzed thousands of hours of unencrypted Russian radio communications to help find targets, but has struggled to stay afloat as it has waited for major defense contracts.
"Small companies can't just sit there twiddling their thumbs for two or three years until our contract gets in place," Heidi Shyu, the undersecretary of defense for research and engineering, said late last year at the Reagan National Defense Forum.
Pentagon officials in charge of buying have also been trained to avoid risk, after decades of scandals associated with overpriced toilet seats, ships that do not work and corruption. That culture is not a good match for technology companies that thrive on innovation, speed and constantly upgrading their products.
"The buyers at the Pentagon, they're trained often to say 'no' – to stay within the rule book," said Payam Banazadeh, the founder and CEO of Capella Space.
From the early months of the war, SpaceX's Starlink, the Elon Muskfounded satellite internet service, played a critical role for front-line Ukrainian troops. But small drones and a denser collection of satellites are also helping to provide the capacity for pervasive surveillance, allowing Ukraine to identify and track threats and targets constantly.
A new generation of cheaper and more precise attack drones carrying bombs can loiter in the air autonomously until they find their targets. Artificial intelligence-backed computer systems can fuse this collected data and other feeds to make targeting decisions, faster than any human. The Ukrainians have also innovated a great deal themselves, impressing Pentagon officials as they have converted commercial drones, for example, into mini-bombers.
Taken together, said Thomas X. Hammes, who studies war-fighting history at the Pentagon-backed National Defense University, the developments represent a "genuine military revolution," and one that is happening much more quickly than the shift from infantry that traveled by foot in World War I to the motorized and mechanized armies of World War II.
"Today's rate of change does not allow the United States and its allies and partners the luxury of two decades to transition," said Hammes, a 30-year veteran of the Marines. "You are beginning to see a willingness to accept this is happening all the way up to the three and four-star general level. They understand it has to happen. The question is, how do you make it happen?"
Backed up with beating drums and patriotic music, a montage of video clips show off in rapid succession a series of successful intercepts by a new type of war-fighting tool: an unmanned vehicle that lifts off when an enemy drone is detected, tracks the incoming weapon and, using a Spider Man-like net, disables it.
Manufactured by Fortem, the Utah based startup, it earned the nickname of the "Shahed Hunter," referring to the Iranian-made attack drones that the unmanned Fortem aircraft were intercepting.
It is just one of at least 30 new products identified by The New York Times manufactured by mostly small tech startups in the United States that have been used on the front lines in Ukraine or by allies helping the Ukrainians.
This American-based technology is arriving in Ukraine through a variety of arrangements. They include donations by the companies, direct acquisition by the Ukrainian government or groups that support it, or purchases by the United States government, which then sends it to Ukraine.
The U.S. government has had advanced satellites in space for years, with capabilities that still exceed what the commercial companies can offer. But starting about five years ago, private-sector players like Capella started to launch smaller, cheaper and faster to build units, offering more frequent coverage of the world than even the U.S. government can provide.
"This is really the first major war in which commercially available satellite imagery may play a significant role in providing open source information about troop movements, military buildups in neighboring countries, flows of refugees and more," Ukraine's minister for innovation, My khailo Fedorov, wrote in March 2022 at the outset of the war, accurately predicting the vital role this commercial data has since played.
Some experts say that AI, which has been used in Ukraine to help sift through the massive loads of data being accumulated from surveillance, will ultimately prove as disruptive to the nature of war-fighting as nuclear weapons.
"AI is able to make millions of decisions, even before the human knows there is a decision to make," said Will Roper, who served as the top Air Force procurement official until 2021 and still serves as an adviser to the Pentagon.
"It's kind of like being at the starting block of a new era of warfare."For Primer, the small AI firm based in downtown San Francisco, it was a breakthrough moment.
Not long after the war in Ukraine started, its engineers, working with Western allies, tapped into a tidal wave of intercepted Russian radio communications. It used advanced software to clean up the crackly sound, automatically translated the conversations, and most importantly, isolated moments when Russian soldiers in Ukraine were discussing weapons systems, locations and other tactically important information.
This same work would have taken hundreds of intelligence analysts to identify the few relevant clues in the mass of radio traffic. Now it was happening in a matter of minutes.