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Funding for Military Mobile Technology Flattens as Demand Rises 

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By Yasmin Tadjdeh 



Funding to incorporate smartphones and tablets in Defense Department offices and on battlefields has stagnated even as demand for devices is rising.

At the National Security Agency, employees want devices similar to the ones that can be purchased at most retailers, said Debora Plunkett, director of the NSA’s information assurance directorate.

To keep up with demand, the NSA is exploring devices that can be kept secure — particularly in a classified network — while offering the latest in technological advancements, Plunkett said in November at an Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association symposium in Washington, D.C. 

“User’s expectations are leading to the development of … these technologies, which will continue to change the security paradigm and present new challenges for us,” Plunkett said. “It is not only our user’s expectations driving the capability requirements, but the rapid pace of innovation is also causing the user … to demand the latest and greatest technologies that are available in the domestic market.”

Uniformed and civilian workers are clamoring to get their hands on the latest technology — such as iOS and Android enabled devices — that industry promises will make communication and productivity more streamlined.

But as budgets slide, acquiring new high-tech devices is becoming less feasible, experts said. Funding for mobile devices will be flat as the military grapples with budget cuts and sequestration.

“For the Army, my mobility budget is decreasing,” said Rick Walsh, mobile lead at the Army’s office of the chief information officer/G-6. “Our funding for mobile is very small.”
Peter Ziomek, mobile director at the CIO office for the Department of the Navy, said the “mobility budget is flat, but declining.”

However, the department has taken steps to save money without cutting mobile capabilities over the past few years, he noted.

With what funding is available, the Pentagon will likely have to purchase devices that may still have some kinks in them, said Jennifer Carter, component acquisition executive at the Defense Information Systems Agency.

“We’re not waiting for things to be perfect and fully mature. We’re getting capabilities that are out there quickly and then we’re continuing to enhance those capabilities,” Carter said. “We really worked hard to close the gap with industry.”

Mobile technology can change rapidly, she said. DISA is working to keep up pace with innovation in the domestic market that churns out new devices multiple times a year.

“The technology in mobile devices changes so fast that we really can’t afford to do business the way it’s been done previously,” Carter said. “This also requires a little bit of a change on the user’s part. They’re not quite used to getting a capability that’s not perfect, where the operation still has some time to mature.”

Tastes in the types of devices preferred by users are also changing.

For the last decade, BlackBerry devices have been the number-one choice for the Defense Department. Despite the device’s popularity, one senior service official predicted Army BlackBerrys will largely be replaced in the future.

“We expect over the next several years that the majority of users that are currently using BlackBerrys will migrate to an iOS or Android device and they will leave the BlackBerry service,” Lt. Col. Ed Mattison, Army CIO/G-6 cyber security directorate and mobility technical lead, said in November at the Milcom Conference in San Diego.

Starting on Jan. 1, the Army will allow commands to trade out current legacy BlackBerrys for BlackBerry10, Android or iOS enabled devices.

As budgets are cut, getting any new device in the hands of servicemen and civilian workers is challenging, leaders said.

To help with costs, one often mentioned alternative could be a “bring-your-own-device” policy, also known as BYOD. Should it be implemented, defense employees in the field and in offices could use their own personal device for work tasks, potentially saving the department countless dollars in acquiring new technology.

However, BYOD is fraught with uncertainty, some have said. Personal device use could lead to major security breaches if just one device on a network is compromised.

While there is a high demand for a BYOD policy among young servicemen, it is unlikely that the military will adopt it in the near future, said Rear Adm. Robert E. Day Jr., assistant commandant for C4IT/CIO and commander of Coast Guard Cyber Command.

“Most of us are not going down that road yet because we’re waiting for the security piece, the [human resources] piece, the legal piece, all to come into place,” said Day. “[But] our workforce is going to expect that. That 25-year-old … is going to say, ‘I really don’t want to carry four devices around, why can’t you integrate?’”

Walsh agreed that a BYOD policy was unlikely to come to fruition soon.

“BYOD is a great concept — the opportunities are wonderful there — but we as an Army right now are not going to embrace BYOD,” he said.

More studies need to be done before the military would approve a BYOD policy, he said. Furthermore, it is not a technological problem that is impeding on implementation of the policy, he noted.

“Technology is not an issue. It’s political. It’s the political part, the union part, the people part, that make BYOD … difficult,” said Walsh.

For example, would the Army have to pay servicemen or civilian workers who check their devices in the evening? he asked. In a time of tight budgets, paying employees overtime for mobile device checking would be controversial, he said.

More mobile devices are being used for office work, said Day.

“This is the workplace of the future. It’s not anchored, going back to your office and transcribing your notes. It’s going out and actually doing the work and capturing the data,” said Day.

As mobile technology becomes more prevalent, better office productivity apps are needed, said Carter.

“The office capability is important,” said Carter. “We have a high priority for working those capabilities into mobile devices so people can carry most of their standard office functions with them on their mobile device and therefore be able to be productive.”

Better authentication methods and common access card (CAC) enablement are also high on the agency’s list of needs, Carter said. The CAC serves as a form of ID across the Defense Department, and provides access into various buildings and computer systems. DISA wants to bring this same authentication to mobile devices, she said.

“The CAC enablement is an agency-wide [need],” said Carter. “That’s an area where we could really use more ideas and solutions to be able to make that authentication piece for the users simplified. We want to make sure we know who is using the device.”

CAC mobile authentication options need to be affordable and cannot be too bulky, she said. Users cannot be expected to lug around large attachments that latch onto the mobile device, she said.

Built-in, embedded security is a high priority, Plunkett said.

“We can no longer afford to think of security as an add-on, to be considered following the design and the initial development. Addressing security as an afterthought will likely degrade the user experience [and] cause development inefficiencies,” Plunkett said.

It is not uncommon for a company to present Plunkett with a “really great product” and then subsequently ask her to secure it, she said. By that time, “it is too late.”

“We ask industry to address security as soon as possible in the development cycle … and to incorporate security requirements and design into devices and applications as essential, critical, foundational functionalities,” Plunkett said.

Soldiers in the field need devices with a longer battery life, said John Wilcox, director of communications and CIO/J6 for U.S. Special Operations Command.

“[The] number-one SOF problem, forever and ever and ever, is power,” said Wilcox. “We still have work to do on the power side.”

SOF is also in need of better video compression software in mobile devices, he said. Additionally, the command needs more bandwidth to process the wealth of full-motion video streams it receives, he said.

Maj. Gen. Stuart M. Dyer, director of cybersecurity and acting deputy CIO in the office of the CIO/G-6 of the Army, agreed that bandwidth is a tough problem to solve in a tactical environment.

“I think the issue in the tactical environment is always going to be one of constraint of resources. In the tactical environment, what we’re trying to do is give [servicemen] the ability to have the information they need when they need it,” said Dyer. “If we could design and optimize our devices so they operate very elegantly, very efficiently in very low-bandwidth environments, … to me, that’s a key sell right there.”

Photo Credit: Thinkstock
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