As the U.S. Army ponders how to give every soldier a smartphone loaded with apps for military purposes -- and be able to support global communications not only with commercial cellular networks like Sprint, Verizon or AT&T -- it is also exploring how it can quickly set up its own wireless network almost anywhere in the world.
"The vision we're looking at is, every soldier is issued a phone," says Michael McCarthy, director of operations at the Brigade Modernization Command, Mission Command Complex, at Fort Bliss, Texas. Here the testing of commercial smartphones and tablets has been going on for several months, sometimes with soldiers toting them along for general administrative duties and training, or even taking them out in field exercises in the rugged desert surroundings. Along with McCarthy, Ed Mazzanti and Col. Marissa Tanner are leading the project the Army calls "Connecting Soldiers to Digital Apps."
But lots of questions need to be answered before the Army can give the go-ahead to give each U.S. solider a smartphone. McCarthy says Army analysts are seeking to find out whether smartphones, as well as tablets, could be adapted to meet specific security and operational considerations the military has.
The Army wants to know if assigned military radio frequencies can be securely used with the new generation of hand-held devices in order to support a more custom-designed network that could be set up on the go.
The Army is exploring that possibility by reviewing three new wireless technologies -- one called Monax from Lockheed Martin, another from Oceus Networks (partnering with Northrop Grumman), and third, the "cognitive radio" gear from xG Technology.
McCarthy says Army technical analysts supervising the tests have been encouraged by what they've seen with xG's "cognitive radio" gear which enables "frequency hopping" by continually searching for unused frequency spectrum, a technique that McCarthy says appears to reduce interference problems. The xG equipment provides voice and data, supporting approximately 4MB for each smartphone user, though it is dependent on the number of users and the distance from a base station.
"Our target going forward is to hit 35 kilometers from the base station," says McCarthy about the Army's ideas for how it might set up a network of portable base stations on the go. The Army would like to be able to transport wireless radio base station equipment of some type to wherever it's needed, quickly setting up and tearing down a network for smartphones for assigned military frequencies.
The Amy appears to be the first among the U.S. military services to take this much interest in using smartphones, though the Air Force and Navy are motivated as well, says McCarthy. He adds U.S. allies, such as NATO partners, also have "significant interest."
But can commercial smartphones really meet the Army's security and operational requirements?
The Army is working to find out, checking out about 1,200 phones and other devices (including about 15 basic models of Apple iPhones and iPads, Google Android, and Microsoft Windows Mobile). "The folks at HP are coming out with a Web OS and they will send me some devices to test," says McCarthy.
But the Army says it doesn't want to be picking a single winner. One way envisioned to achieve smartphone heterogeneity involves using a software HTML-based framework that Army developers came up with that allows for writing smartphone applications once so they run on multiple smartphone operating systems. It's hoped this would eliminate the need to write apps multiple times for various smartphone operating systems, says McCarthy.
"We're trying to stay device and OS agnostic," he says, adding that the Army's aspiration is to "buy the right phones for the right people for the right reason."
The Army anticipates turning to both the commercial sector and its own Army developers for the apps the military may need. Developers at Fort Lee some time ago came up a couple hundred logistical apps for both Google Android and the Apple iPhone, while army specialists at Fort Bliss have written about two dozen tactical applications, including variants on a medical-evacuation request.
Tests have shown that the speed of filling out medical evacuation forms can be reduced from 15 minutes to 1.5 minutes using smartphone capabilities, says McCarthy.
If smartphones do end up being used in military operations by soldiers, these devices could end up being "as important to them as their weapon," McCarthy suggests. At the same time, there's also the notion that if smartphones were lost or damaged, there would be a way to treat them as scrapped and move on to a new one. And because smartphones use touch screens, the Army might need to find different gloves for soldiers than the ones generally used today.
Smartphone apps are already showing their value in pilot projects involving training of soldiers that includes making material available via smartphones that soldiers carry around on base. This is boosting their grade-point averages when taking Army exams, apparently because the smartphones help spur a little competition among soldiers, almost like a video game, says McCarthy. "Before, we had power-point handouts," he adds, which wasn't always regarded as a compelling training format.
But are smartphones and tablets tough enough in terms of security and ruggedness to join the Army?
That's still a big question. The National Security Agency (NSA), America's high-tech spy agency which also plays a role in Department of Defense security, is working to come up with viable security options, such as chipsets for encryption that could be certified for use in smartphones.
The military is also looking at how biometrics, including voice, face or iris scans, could be used with smartphones to validate identity; one option under consideration is a 3G biometric Intel platform. "We want to find out what technology works best and what technology soldiers prefer to use," McCarthy says.
The Army has no set deadline for making a decision on smartphones, and recognizes the high-tech industry, now flooding the world with its endless variety of hand-held devices, could come up with radical improvements in a short time span. If there's anything that does give the military pause, it's that most smartphones and tablets are manufactured outside the U.S., including in nations that are not even officially American allies. "It's a concern," says McCarthy, adding that the military is sharing those concerns with the smartphone and tablet manufacturers involved.