Smartphones in Combat: TMI for Some Soldiers
WHITE SANDS MISSILE RANGE, N.M. – Army leaders view smartphones as a valuable tool to keeping soldiers and commanders connected.
Soldiers here are testing commercial handheld devices in a variety of combat missions, but a debate is raging about how much information is too much for the individual soldier.
“There's no need for me to have this,” Army Pvt. David Kramlich said about the Joint Battle Command-Platform (JBC-P) Handheld, one of the prototypes the Army is trying out. “Sure, I can tell where I am,” he said, but he doesn't need to be overloaded with information that is used to make command decisions.
“It should stay at the level of a section sergeant,” Kramlich said. “Don't give it to every soldier.”
The JBC-P Handheld consists of an Android-based smartphone connected to a Rifleman Radio, which provides GPS and voice communications. A similar system is Nett Warrior, which began years ago as a weighty suite of wearable computers, but now has been shrunk down to individual phones and tablets carried in pouches on the front of the uniform or on the sleeves.
Soldiers have the same opinion about Nett Warrior, which can be used to plan missions, receive sensor feeds, mark buildings and rooms that have been cleared, communicate via text message and track friendly and enemy forces. The multitude of applications can be too much for the lowest-level troops, leaders said.
“Privates don't need to be looking at maps and planning” data when they are going on raids, said Sgt. Cody Moose. “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 been insistent that they will be using feedback from soldiers conducting semi-annual Network Integration Evaluation 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 next month. 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?”
But before 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?'”
“It's not ready for actual use,” Sgt. Gary Tillery said. “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 the handheld doesn'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 the Nett Warrior, it often stalls, Moose said. The texting capability also is touch-and-go, soldiers said.
Nett Warrior is less a communication tool than one that provides situational awareness, they said. And at least some of them said they wouldn't know what to do with all that information.