Army begins mobile phone experiments

The Army has begun a large-scale field test to determine how it could use commercial smartphones and software on the battlefield.

Funny coincidence: The same day Steve Jobs and his top Apple lieutenants are set to announce their latest batch of wonder-products, the Army is beginning its latest experiment with smartphones on the battlefield. As the WSJ’s Nathan Hodge reports, the Army has dialed back its ambitions a bit — its leaders are emphasizing this is a test, and they don’t necessarily want to buy a phone for every soldier. Still, the Army would love to network up all its soldiers and vehicles with relatively cheap devices and software, and the wireless industry, no doubt, would love to sell it all that stuff.

Wrote Hodge:

The Army doesn’t have a plan to give every soldier a smartphone. But Gen. Peter Chiarelli, the Army’s vice chief of staff, recently said that if the devices proved themselves in testing, the service would “buy what we need for who needs it now.”

Many of the applications the Army wants to develop—for instance, the ability to watch full-motion video shot from a drone—can already be done with equipment now in the field. The potential advantage of smartphones and tablets is their lighter weight and ease of use.

The tests will take place at the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico and at neighboring Fort Bliss, Texas, as part of a wider Army evaluation of a range of communications gear. During the six-week event, soldiers of the Second Brigade Combat Team, First Armored Division, will see if the equipment holds up in rugged desert conditions.

Michael McCarthy, one of the Army’s project leaders, said the point of smartphone testing is to see what works and what doesn’t. “We want to give people the right phones for the right reasons, not just give them another shiny thing to hang on their equipment carriers,” he said.

Army officials say the devices need to be relatively affordable, perhaps costing a few hundred dollars each, depending on the model. The service doesn’t want to “spend $2,500 to ruggedize a $200 phone,” Mr. McCarthy said.

In theory, smartphones could eventually become common tools for troops, with software customized for each unit or mission. The Army, for instance, is testing apps that could expedite the treatment of soldiers wounded in combat. In the coming exercise, the service will evaluate several apps that help speed requests for medical evacuation by relaying the exact location of an injured soldier, with touch-screen menus to fill in crucial information such as the patient’s name, health status and type of injury.

Another app, called “SoldierEyes,” turns a smartphone into a sort of battlefield navigation device. In addition to displaying a digital map, it features an “augmented reality” mode that enables the user to flip on the camera and scan the horizon. Digital markers pop up on the screen, displaying the direction and distance to objectives on the battlefield.

Here’s where Steve’s ears perk up:

The Army is experimenting with Apple Inc. devices such as the iPhone and iPad, but is also trying devices built around Google Inc.’s Android operating system. All told, the Army has identified around 85 digital apps for testing, some created by commercial software designers, and some developed in-house by soldiers. The service is also developing downloadable apps to substitute for bulky instruction manuals that need constant updating, often at considerable cost.

But the Army could have some big challenges when — or if — it decides to try to field all this stuff in an actual shooting war. It could be in a position where it has to deploy with its own cellular network infrastructure, meaning towers, cables and computers, which sounds potentially complicated and expensive.

And it will need to figure out some way to protect all this data zipping back and forth, especially if troops are using their devices full time. The Army battle network might be encrypted, but if Sgt. Hardtack uses his iPhone in Afghanistan to upload sensitive intel, then brings it home, what happens if it gets lost or stolen? Or, in this post-Wikileaks era, what if Sarge might want to deliberately share what he has on it?