WHITE SANDS MISSILE RANGE, N.M. — Three soldiers hunkered down behind a small ridge of dirt and rocks, are taking cover out in an open desert landscape.
One cautiously peered out over the horizon, while another looked into the distance through a pair of binoculars. A third lay on his stomach, using a stylus to leaf through apps on a smartphone.
This has been a typical scene here lately as the Army searches for ways to convert the hottest commercial devices into tools of war.
Officials want to bring the battle network to “the tactical edge,” they say, communicating in any environment, on the move and from command locations down to the soldier about to bust through a door in an Afghan village. Network Integration Evaluation exercises held here and at nearby Fort Bliss, Texas, will help determine what equipment to put in the hands of troops and how much information is too much for the individual soldier.
Commercial smartphones are playing a big role in these investigations. They are lightweight, inexpensive and most soldiers already use them in civilian settings. But the Army is finding out that the devices may not always be needed or even wanted on the battlefield.
Troops here have been experimenting with Android phones to send data back and forth. They use them to plan missions, receive sensor feeds, mark buildings and rooms that have been cleared, communicate via text message and track friendly and enemy forces. However, the multitude of applications can be too much for the lowest-level troops, soldiers said.
Army Pfc. David Kramlich had been battle-testing smartphones here for a few weeks when he held one up and said, “There’s no need for me to have this.”
He was talking about the Joint Battle Command-Platform (JBC-P) Handheld, one of the prototypes the Army is trying out. The JBC-P Handheld consists of a smartphone connected to a Rifleman Radio, which provides GPS and voice communications.
“Sure, I can tell where I am,” Kramlich said, but he doesn’t need to be overloaded with information that is used to make command decisions.
His opinion has been echoed by several soldiers here, who are also experimenting with a similar system. Nett Warrior began years ago as a weighty suite of wearable computers. It has been shrunk down to individual phones and tablets carried in pouches on the front of the uniform or on the sleeves.
Smartphones “should stay at the level of a section sergeant. Don’t give it to every soldier,” Kramlich said.
“Privates don’t need to be looking at maps and planning” data when they are going on raids, said Staff Sgt. Cody Moose, who has been using Nett Warrior during the NIE. “It’s a lot of stuff. Do I need it? It’s not my decision to make.”
But in a way it is. Army leaders have insisted that they will be using feedback from soldiers conducting these semi-annual network exercises to inform acquisition decisions. Recommendations from this fall’s event will be put in a report and shipped off to the Army’s Training and Doctrine Command. By the end of January, Army brass will make decisions on which technologies to pursue and which to leave alone, said Col. Dave Miller, deputy commander of Brigade Modernization Command.
And the consensus among soldiers and their leaders at the NIE seems to be that not every soldier needs Nett Warrior, JBC-P Handheld or the amount of data they provide. It may make more sense to give the commercial phones to soldiers stateside to speed up some training tasks and handle other non-battle activities such as checking their pay, officials said.
But it is a completely different story on the battlefield.
“I don’t believe [soldiers] down to private need this,” Moose said. “It’s more of a distraction. Do I want him looking down at a phone instead of doing his job?”
Smartphones have become ubiquitous in civilian life, and efforts to bring individual soldiers into the network have zeroed in on the handheld devices. Some experts suggest that tablets and phones could one day replace bulky radio equipment that troops currently use.
Soldiers at the NIE have inquired whether there was a way for them to perform all of their communications, including voice, over the handheld devices, eliminating the need to lug around the radios.
For now, soldiers are being told that it isn’t possible, said Sgt. Gary Tillery.
The main hurdles seem to be security and reliability. The radios are used to communicate over a secured tactical network. Phones receive their signals from cell phone towers and are run on commercial software. Then, there is the issue of power.
A Manpack radio provides 50 watts. A smartphone only has about 300 milliwatts.
“It’s just a phone,” Tillery said. “It can’t do waveform.”
Trying to conduct voice communications over the commercial devices alone is risky business, experts said. Some flat-out said that it couldn’t be done.
“In my opinion, no, it can’t,” said Aaron Chambers, a field support representative from The Praevius Group, which is participating in the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s Transformative Apps program.
“You’d have to have a constant conference call,” he said. And it would be difficult to ensure that the network would remain clear enough to accomplish such a feat.
But could the kind of radio technology used in the Rifleman Radio be installed in a phone?
“That’s an interesting question,” said Bruce Fette, a program manager at DARPA’s strategic technology office. That depends on whether smartphone manufacturers would be willing to turn their products into secret devices, he said.
Pfc. Philip Kerr said it is only a matter of time.
“We still use the radio, so it hasn’t completely eliminated that. But this is just a stepping stone,” he said of the Nett Warrior phone-to-radio connection. He called it completely feasible that soldiers may be able to communicate on the battlefield without radios — “maybe in 10, 20, 30 years,” he said. “But for now the radio still works. If it works, why change it?”
Set aside the phone versus radio talk, said Michael Bristol, senior vice president of TeleCommunication Systems’ government solutions group. He believes the Army will find its answer on how to use smartphones when 4G wireless standards are available.
“The end state, I believe, is that they’ll have the smartphone and that smartphone will use [4G] capability to hit a tactical deployable cell node.” These nodes act just like cell towers, but come in transportable sizes. Some are smaller than a laser printer. They can suck in all phones within a certain radius and relay signals back and forth like a tower would.
The Army could tether phones to these nodes instead of relying on radios, Bristol said. The service also must decide whether it wants to use dedicated military smartphones or commercially available ones. Those available right now probably don’t have enough storage to include a software-defined radio, he said.
But anything is possible, Harris Corp. officials at the NIE said. The company, which had a variety of radio products evaluated at the event, plans to roll out a 7-inch tablet with a radio inside in less than two years, they said.
In the meantime, soldiers continue to experiment with combinations of commercial phones and military equipment. Some of the contraptions are cumbersome enough to hinder movement. When Kramlich puts on his phone-radio gear, the weight doesn’t affect him.
“But if I have to drop or run at a moment’s notice, that could be a problem,” he said. “If I have to drop and hit the ground, it would probably break.”
There also is a system that combines a handheld device with the Rifleman Radio but also adds a long antenna that is supposed to double the range of communication. So far, soldiers aren’t seeing much improvement, Tillery said.
Nett Warrior may be the best example of how the Army is trying to figure out how to give soldiers more information without adding to their loads.
It has come a long way from the days when soldiers called it “turtle” because of the bulky shells they had to wear on their backs, said Justin Evaristo, a systems integrator for the program.
Currently, it consists of only a handheld device that must be plugged into a tactical radio to connect to the network. Soldiers also may be able to use a Man Portable Unit, which mimics a wireless router and is worn on the back. The question is whether soldiers will ever be able to use a small, handheld device that does everything, including voice communications.
“We will get to that point,” Evaristo said. “Look how far we’ve come already. It went from 25 pounds to 17 pounds, then 10 pounds and now it’s down to ounces.”
But before any of the devices can be fielded, whether to individual soldiers or just their squad and platoon leaders, several kinks must be worked out.
Soldiers can be standing right next to each other and the JBC-P Handheld will depict them being in completely different locations.
“It’s unreliable in its GPS tracking,” Kramlich said. “I’ll be walking and tracking a vehicle and it just disappears and I’m like, ‘Where did it go?’”
Tillery said: “It’s not ready for actual use.There’s a communication issue between it and the Rifleman Radio.”
The radio is currently undergoing tests in the mountains east of the missile range, but Tillery said that soldiers have run into problems speaking at long distances. The communication is clear within a range of about 600 or 700 meters, he explained. It is perfect for an urban environment, “but out here?” He motioned to the vast landscape and shook his head. “No.”
Soldiers also would like to try the system out with a headset to avoid giving away critical information. The radio currently has no internal speaker, so grid locations and other information could easily be heard by enemy fighters if they are close enough.
While Tillery agrees that phones don’t need to be given to every soldier, he suggested giving individuals at the lower levels a beacon to wear on their back so leaders could still track and coordinate them.
As for Nett Warrior, it often stalls, Moose said. The texting capability also is touch-and-go, soldiers said.
“Maybe it will work, maybe it won’t,” Kerr said.
Nett Warrior is less a communication tool than one that provides situational awareness, he said. And at least some of the soldiers trying it out in the southwest desert believe that there is such a thing as too much awareness.