Army forging ahead on smartphone tests

Friday - 2/25/2011, 7:54am EST

WFED's Jared Serbu

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By Jared Serbu
Reporter
Federal News Radio

The Army is six-to-eight months away from presenting the results of pilot projects on the potential applications for warfighters of smartphones.

Lt. Gen. Michael Vane, who leads the Army's Capabilities Integration Center, said when the Army first launched its eight smartphone test projects, its plan was to focus primarily on delivering training and education materials in the first phase. But Vane said the limited tests they planned for operational uses advanced more quickly than they expected.

"We're now almost equally focused on delivering training content and moving in the direction of using smartphones for operational purposes as well," Vane said Thursday in a telephone briefing with reporters. "We now have several theater commanders asking for these same capabilities to deploy with them in combat."

Vane did not discuss specific details of what the Army is testing in the pilots, and said the idea of issuing smartphones as standard equipment to every soldier is not something the service is ready to commit to. But he said that may be one of the outcomes of the pilots that are now underway.

"There's a long-term vision here that would say that if we can figure out the smart, cost-beneficial way of doing this, this probably does make sense in the long run," he said. "We can see it already in the training environment. It's not yet as clear in the operational environment."

Vane said the operational focus is on giving ground forces in small units an advantage in the field, and to try to build the Army of 2020 within the next four years. He said while the U.S. military is dominant in the air and sea domains, ground forces had less of an advantage over adversaries in many cases, particularly in counterinsurgency situations.

He said getting the necessary communications and other logistics infrastructure in place still takes too long when ground forces enter an area of unrest. Smartphones may be a way around that.

"One of the most significant feedbacks you get from soldiers in theater is that they look at their Afghan Army compatriot or a Taliban guy who has a cell phone, and we deny that capability to our own soldiers even though the enemy is using them," he said.

In many cases, Vane said, the military may not even need to bring along its own cell towers or other mobile phone communications infrastructure. Some of the pilot projects are exploring how the Army can use local cell phone networks in operational areas to handle military communications in a secure way.

"Whether we operate quickly enough with data that's perishable and not classified and reduce the risk is what we're experimenting with in these pilots," he said. "We think that may be a risk worth taking for perishable battlefield data."

The Army is working along with the Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA) to create a single app store for Army-specific smartphone software. Soldiers and other employees of the Army have created about 150 apps so far, both for training and operations, Vane said. And although most of the mobile industry buzz is focused on iPhone and Android at the moment, he said the Army is trying to make sure it doesn't get anchored down to any one platform.

"We've generated requirements called the mission command essential characteristics, so we already have a requirements document out there, within which commercial off-the-shelf capabilities can be purchased very rapidly, creating this architectural backbone that allows any kind of hardware to interface," he said. "We think we can put this on a two-year cycle or so with what we call capability sets."

Vane said the ultimate objective is to combine anything that operates in the electromagnetic spectrum, including video, voice, biometric data and electronic warfare systems into a single device that's flexible enough to be secure when it needs to be - and potentially available for personal use when it doesn't need to be, all using commercial technology.

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