White Sands Missile Range –– As the Pentagon and Boeing explore the best uses for smartphones on the battlefield, it looks as if the iPhone’s proprietary software may mean the military will give it a miss and gravitate to Android phones because of their open operating systems.
This comes even after the Army’s vice chief of staff, Gen. Peter Chiarelli, stood up last year, waved his own iPhone in the air and said it offered lessons to the Army for rapidly designing and moving equipment to the field. The potential military smartphone market is enormous since it could mean tens of thousands of Army and Marine troopers would be armed with phones designed to connect with secure mobile Internets created by the software radios, known generically as Joint Tactical Radio Systems.
Both the Army and Boeing are exploring how to use smartphones to improve soldiers’ performance on and off the battlefield. As Col. Marisa Tanner of the Army’s Future Force Integration Division puts it: smartphones provide each soldier with more sensors. The phones, coupled with those sensors and tied to a network, would also enormously increase the sharing of data between front-line troops, Special Forces operators and their commanders. In addition to the sensors on them, the phones could use custom-designed apps to speed data collection and sharing. The Pentagon’s advanced research arm, DARPA, is building an experimental app store, roughly modeled on Apple’s business model, which Tanner said “should open any day.” Soldiers would be able to build apps on the fly. Once they get approved for service-wide use, they could be shared online through secure Army portals.
The Army is trying Android, Windows Mobile and iPhones, Tanner said.
Boeing has already sunk some of its own research money into the idea of an app store, using iPhones to do it. They built, among other apps, one for processing detainees after hearing from an 82nd Airborne trooper that he regularly spent three to four hours to process detainees. That did not include the time he spent moving them from the field to a FOB or operations center where he could do the processing.
I tried the app out. It’s simple. Open it and there’s a button to use the iPhone camera to snap a shot of Osama bin Laden’s new driver. Another button allows you to grab a quick fingerprint. And there are fields to note exactly where, when and in what conditions the detainee was seized. If the smartphone was connected through a secure mobile Internet, that information could easily be shared with a Tactical Operations Center or with intelligence officers through something like the Army’s FBCB2 system.
Another promising app would be one for precision fires, Army and Boeing officials said. Imagine a smartphone in the hands of a Special Forces operator or a squad leader. The fight is in close, making a bombing run problematic or there aren’t any air assets available. The trooper uses the targeting app, feeds the data to the Accelerated Precision Mortar Initiative, the result of an urgent needs request from soldiers in Afghanistan, and wipes out a Taliban squad or sniper without killing or wounding civilians. Of course, that targeting data could also be fed to aircraft or even a Prompt Global Strike weapon for a strike on a High Value Target like Mullah Omar.
The Army is trying out 200 smartphones — Android and iPhones — here to see how soldiers use them, how effective they might be and how secure they can be made. There is no money in the budget to fund it yet, but if the test goes as well as Army officials here think it will, the fielding of smartphones would be made part of son of FCS’ (known official as Brigade Combat Team Modernization) Increment 2, the
The basic problem with iPhones, according to a Boeing source, is that Apple’s produt uses proprietary software. Each app would carry a $200 charge, the Boeing official said, posing what could be a significant costs to the services. On top of that, the Pentagon and the four services are trying to extricate themselves from closed systems — stovepipes — and use only open source systems to which they own the rights or are truly open, like Unix. And troops are showing a preference for a horizontal screen with real keys as they try to input information using gloves and one hand, according to Tanner.
Boeing’s opinion on the iPhone matters because Boeing built SOSCOE, the JTRS middleware that connects the radio’s waveform software to other software like applications. The Pentagon owns SOSCOE and wants to own or use an open source system so Apple would appear to be a deep disadvantage if it wants to supply the Army and other services with its product.
Making smartphones secure enough for military use is one of the biggest obstacles to their deployment. Col. Tanner and others noted. First, the network they operate on must be secure. Then the phones must make secure transmissions. And they must be made be made tactically secure, so that if a soldier is killed or wounded and the enemy grabs their phone they don’t get an open window into U.S. or allied operations, intelligence or capabilities. Tanner pointed to technologies like the Remote Wipe and Find My iPhone services that could be emulated. Also, biometrics such as fingerprint or iris scans could be build into phones so that no one but the user could access them. And there is the standard Common Access Card (CAC) card used across the military services to access computers that could be adapted to phone use.
[Full disclosure: Boeing paid for our flights to and from White Sands.]