WASHINGTON — DARPA, the Pentagon’s high-tech office, is working with the government of Ukraine to develop capabilities to help Kiev in its hybrid warfare challenge.
DARPA director Steven Walker, who recently took over that job after five years as the agency’s deputy, told reporters that he had personally visited the country in 2016 for talks with Ukrainian military, intel and industry leaders.
“We did have a good visit to the Ukraine,” Walker said Thursday at a breakfast hosted by the Defense Writer’s Group. “Yes, we have followed up with them, and through the U.S. European Command, we have started several projects with the Ukraine, mostly in the information space.”
“Not providing them weapons or anything like that, but looking at how to help them with information,” Walker added, before declining to go into further detail.
Ukraine has become a testing ground for hybrid warfare techniques from Russia and Russian-backed militant groups ever Russia’s invasion of Ukrainian territory in 2014, including disinformation campaigns. While that has allowed Moscow to test out new capabilities and techniques, it also provides an opportunity to develop counter techniques — which may benefit the U.S. and its allies in the long term.
“I think we’ve got to get better, as a country, in information warfare and how we approach info warfare,” Walker said. “I think there are capabilities there that we need to improve upon, and DAPRA is working in some of those areas.”
This is not the first tie between DARPA and Kiev. The Ukrainian government has hired Tony Tether, who led DARPA for the entirety of the George. W. Bush administration, to help lead a reorganization of their science and technology efforts, something Tether in a LinkedIn post said was necessary in part because so much of Ukraine’s S&T facilities were in the territory seized by Russia.
The former DARPA head has also consulted for the Ukroboronprom group, Ukraine’s largest defense contractor, and just a few weeks ago was added to the group’s supervisory board in a move that Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko called a “symbol of effective cooperation between Ukrainian and American partners.”
Tether is expected to try and recreate some of what make DARPA so successful in Ukraine, but Walker notes that many countries have tried to do that — and failed, in large part due to a cultural fear of giving workers the freedom to fail they need.
“When I talk to others about DARPA and why it works, many other cultures say ‘this couldn’t happen,’” Walker noted.
More broadly, Walker said part of what he wants to see at DARPA during his tenure is looking at increasing counterinsurgency capabilities.
“I think as more populations across the world move to larger and larger cities, we need to understand the three dimensionality of cites and how to operate in those very crowded, very three-dimensional spaces,” Walker said, noting DARPA is working on ways to sense and map underground tunnels and infrastructure.
Updated 3/1/18 at 1:45 PM EST to reflect the fact that after publication, DARPA confirmed that Walker visited Ukraine in 2016.
Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.