The Army this year launched with much fanfare an “apps” competition on the premise that techies will design soldier-friendly smartphone applications.
The hoopla over apps, however, may be premature, as it could be years before the Army is ready to adopt smartphones as standard soldier equipment.
Credit for the Army’s foray into smartphone technology in part goes to Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Peter Chiarelli, who while commanding troops in Iraq, became keenly aware of soldiers’ unquenchable thirst for information.
The equipment the Army provides, Chiarelli contended, is outdated, user-unfriendly and expensive. The iPhone, by contrast, is state of the art, easy to use and, by Army standards, dirt cheap. Why couldn’t soldiers load up the apps they need for their particular jobs and have a single device that does it all? From their phone, they could tap into the “blue force tracker” that tells them the location of friendly forces. They could pull up Google-like maps and pinpoint the geographic location of those forces. Or, while on patrols, they could receive live video feeds from surveillance aircraft.
Chiarelli’s musings about the iPhone and his criticism of the current communications systems sent shockwaves through the Pentagon’s information-technology community and defense contractors. “After Chiarelli said he wanted iPhones, the technologists went crazy,” said a senior defense industry executive.
The commotion was understandable, considering the wide cultural chasm between the iPhone business model and the way the Army develops and buys technology. “It is a great vision, but it clashes with the reality on the ground,” said the executive.
Naysayers notwithstanding, the Army’s Chief Information Officer Lt. Gen. Jeffrey Sorenson spearheaded the apps contest and endorsed the notion that Army software development should be more like Apple’s.
As to whether smartphones will become standard equipment, it is too soon to say, said a Sorenson spokesman.
“The Army has invested in pilot efforts to encourage development of Army applications for smartphones and to assess any potential issues,” said the spokesman in response to questions from National Defense. “In addition to developing Army applications, we are determining the pros and cons associated with equipping the war fighters with a wide variety of smartphones.”
Any smartphones that the Army buys would not be able to run sensitive “battle command” applications because these would be incompatible with the phone’s operating system. The Army CIO spokesman said there are no plans at this time to shift the development of battle-command applications to open-source operating systems.
Maj. Gen. Keith Walker, who commands an Army unit that experiments with new technology at Fort Bliss, Texas, said one of those pilot programs is to upload maintenance and instruction manuals on smartphones. “We’re going to outfit 200 soldiers in the brigade this year with an iPhone like device,” Walker said during a telephone news conference. “They’ll have the apps for system maintenance, instruction manuals. … Soldiers will give us feedback and comments on performance of the equipment, Wikipedia-like.”
Walker cautioned that none of the smartphones will be used for voice communications. “Soldiers will not use these to call home,” he said. “They’ll be connected with each other in an internal network.”
The Army’s flirtation with the iPhone has rekindled a long-standing debate about why the Defense Department consistently fails to take advantage of advances in commercial technology. Experts are split on the issue. Some believe the Army’s procurement system is to blame for saddling soldiers with equipment that becomes outdated before it even reaches the users. Others argue that it would be too risky and expensive for the Army to dump its current systems and military-unique networks in favor of “cloud computing” and open-source software.
In cloud computing, the software applications and data reside on the Internet, instead of in a mainframe or server.
Kevin Jackson, an engineering fellow with information-technology giant NJVC, said the Army’s ambivalence about embracing commercial practices could derail any efforts to introduce smartphones as a tool for soldiers to increase their productivity and effectiveness.
“When you think about using smartphones, it’s important for organizations to really think about why people use smartphones in their day to day lives,” Jackson said in an interview.
Users want information at their fingertips. If the Army is going to only allow smartphones for niche applications, and not exploit their full value, it will be missing a huge opportunity, Jackson said.
If the Army is not going to do away with custom operating systems, smartphones will be less valuable and more expensive, he said. “Look at the marketplace. There was a time when every company developed its own proprietary approach. It was superseded by open source because of the economics. So what’s the Army going to do? Develop it’s own proprietary solution?”
The Army usually takes a “slow, measured approach” in buying new systems to avoid risks, said Jackson. “They think if they’re slow and careful about adopting new technology they will avoid risk. … The truth is just the opposite.”
The industry moves at a different pace, he explained. Companies such as Apple and Google release an application even when it’s not 100-percent finished. Then they continue to refresh it. The old way of doing things is to “list all your requirements for a huge application that must meet all the requirements before you release it. By the time you do that, it’s out of date,” said Jackson. “That’s the typical procurement process that the Army is following.”
Josh Hutchison, chief of collective training at the Army’s battle command training center at Fort Bragg, N.C., believes that the Army is serious about trying to provide forces with 21st century technology. But it can only move so fast considering the technical and policy hurdles.
The “apps for Army” program is helpful to kick-start development of new software, but it will take several years for the Army to build the infrastructure it will need to be able to operate smartphones in combat zones, Hutchison said in an interview.
“The acquisition process for IT is based on the model for building a tank over 30 years,” he said. “The IT market moves an idea to the marketplace in six months.”
He gave the Army kudos for a new initiative to develop a “global enterprise” that will allow service members to use a single email address regardless of where they are located in the world.
The Army’s move to a single email enterprise is rather revolutionary, he said. But the battle command networks still will run on local servers in a tactical operations center. Once the Army has its single email enterprise running and upgrades its network bandwidth, there could be enough broadband to run battle command systems as part of the enterprise, or cloud. “It could be three to four years before any TOC is truly operating out of the cloud,” said Hutchison.
Maj. Gen. Nick Justice, head of the Army’s research, development and engineering command, visited Apple headquarters in March. “The Army is moving away from big-green-box solutions and toward those that will adapt along with our war fighters on the battlefield,” Justice told reporters.
Hutchison said the Army is intent on investigating how it could integrate the iPhone, and whether it could be made compatible with the Army’s radio frequencies.
The biggest impediment to bringing smartphones into the Army is that they must function without access to cell phone towers, which do not exist in many parts of the world where troops go.
Any Army smartphone would have to rely on a combination of FM point-to-point line-of-sight radio network, and satellite communications. When a user on the move loses access to the FM radio, the phone would pick up satellite services.
“This is similar to the very high-end smartphones that are out there now,” Hutchison said.
Another major concern for the Army is cybersecurity. Any mobile device that connects to military information networks requires NSA Type 1 encryption, which is the highest available.
Both Apple and Google are in the process of requesting NSA certification for their mobile phones.
Jackson said that Type 1 encryption would make smartphones far more expensive than they should be, considering that most of the information that soldiers need is unclassified. The Army could build its infrastructure initially with only unclassified information that soldiers could tap from their mobile devices.
It is unlikely, however, that the Army will relax its encryption policies. In a combat zone, the location reports of U.S. forces are always classified, no matter what. “When you think about smart devices, they have GPS. That immediately points to security issues,” said Hutchison. “That device will be giving away the position report of a U.S. soldier.”
Once these issues are sorted out, the Army needs to decide how to move forward. Until a definitive plan is in place, the Army will be stuck with a hodgepodge of IT solutions and it will be difficult to reap the benefits of smartphones. “There’s numerous defense contractors out there chomping at the bit to be able to get battle command capabilities into a smart device and web app format for the Defense Department,” Hutchison said.
It is apparent, though, that the most daunting obstacle in the way of Army smartphones is the military procurement system.
The average defense program takes 91 months to bring to fruition. “That was OK when we were building big backroom servers in the 1970s. … It is not acceptable any more,” said Tim Harp, deputy assistant secretary of defense for IT acquisition.
He recalled a conversation with Chiarelli in which the Army’s vice chief wondered why it is taking more than 10 years to field the new joint tactical radio system. Chiarelli suggested that big programs such as JTRS often are out of touch with the needs of troops at war, Harp said at a recent conference hosted by IT industry association TechAmerica.
Chiarelli was struck by the realization that JTRS engineers were worried about a 10-second latency in the radio. Soldiers in harm’s way are not worried about a 10-second latency, Chiarelli reasoned. “If I don’t have that radio, troops have to go up the mountain to get line of sight and expose themselves to enemy fire. They’d much rather have a radio with a 10-second latency that allows them to remain concealed.”
If the Army follows the traditional acquisition route and spends 10 years in search of perfect smartphones and apps, by the time soldiers get their new devices, it is likely that the iPhone will have been replaced by the next, great, information-age gadget.