Lessons From the Ukraine-Russia War
Ukraine’s response to Russia’s invasion is reshaping our understanding of modern warfare along with defense research and development. At the same time, it presents an opportunity for already strong allies to forge new pathways of collaboration across the public and private sectors to bring commercial technology to the future battlefield. With help from public and private organizations, the Ukrainian armed forces have quickly embraced both military and civilian technologies as a means to confront fast-changing battlefield realities.
In “What the Ukraine-Russia War Means for South Korea’s Defense R&D” (Issues, Winter 2023), Keonyeong Jeong, Yongseok Seo, and Kyungmoo Heo argue that the “siloed,” “centralized” South Korean R&D defense sector should take a page from Ukraine’s playbook and better integrate itself with the broader commercial technology sector. The authors recommend prioritizing longer-term R&D challenges rather than the immediate needs of the South Korean armed forces, focusing innovation in critical technologies on new conflict scenarios and dynamic planning over the long run.
In recent years, South Korean policymakers have increasingly recognized the defense sector as a key area for advancing the country’s security and economic interests. Propelled in part by many of the same government-led policy support mechanisms that have made the country a global leader in telecommunications, semiconductors, and robotics, South Korea has become the fastest-growing arms supplier in the world, with arms exports reaching more than $17 billion in 2022. Yet as Jeong, Seo, and Heo note, South Korea’s defense community still faces obstacles to effective adoption of nondefense technologies that have played an important role in Ukraine, such as 3D printing, artificial intelligence-based voice recognition and translation software, and commercial space remote sensing. What’s more, South Korea’s failure to develop an inclusive R&D environment has hindered innovation in the nation’s defense ecosystem. Large companies account for almost 90% of sales among defense firms, leaving little room for smaller, innovative enterprises to find success in the Korean defense ecosystem.
The United States faces many of the same challenges. A 2021 report from Georgetown University’s Center for Security and Emerging Technology argued that under the US Department of Defense’s current organizational structure, “defense innovation is disconnected from defense procurement,” which is hampering efforts to adopt novel technologies at scale. Like its South Korean counterpart, the US defense industrial base is also characterized by high levels of market concentration among top defense contractors.
Jeong, Seo, and Heo offer recommendations that closely align with recent Defense Department efforts to foster innovation and accelerate adoption of the technologies that are fast transforming the US national security landscape. In light of lessons learned in Ukraine, the South Korean and US militaries should work together to develop and adopt disruptive technologies, ultimately enabling a joint fighting force in the Asia-Pacific region capable of deterring and defeating future adversaries.
Jaret C. Riddick
Center for Security and Emerging Technology