Smartphones-for-Soldiers Campaign Hits Wall as Army Experiences Growing Pains

By Sandra I. Erwin
“A smartphone for every soldier” may be a clever slogan. But trying to turn it into reality is becoming an uphill battle for the U.S. Army.

It’s not that the Army doesn’t have the money. With a $10 billion a year information-technology budget, it buys loads of gizmos. But smartphones, although inexpensive compared to most devices soldiers use in combat, present unique challenges. The biggest one is that they give soldiers considerably more freedom to receive and send information than the Army is comfortable with.

Senior commanders fret about issues such as how to ensure no sensitive battlefield intelligence ends up on Facebook. Other vexing questions: How will phone apps be managed? What happens when phones are lost or stolen? And will these fragile objects even survive the rigors of combat?

Another headache is the communications infrastructure. Cellular towers don’t exist everywhere the U.S. military goes. The Army will have to bring its own, which creates a new set of technology hurdles and additional expense.

“We have some issues to work through,” says Maj. Gen. Steven Smith, deputy chief information officer and head of Army cybersecurity.

A flurry of headlines over the past year about the Army’s newfound love for iPhones and Androids may have generated favorable PR for the service, but it also created the false impression that every soldier will be carrying an Army-issued smartphone. That may happen one day, but it could be a while.

“This is coming,” Smith says. “We are trying to get in front of it.”

The only “officially approved” smartphones for government business are Blackberries and other devices that use the Windows Mobile 6.1 operating system. They are issued selectively to officers or unit commanders, not to everyone.

The Army’s Training and Doctrine Command recently purchased more than a thousand smartphones and other mobile tech — iPods, Kindles, iPads, Nooks — to evaluate, as part of a program that is called “Connecting Soldiers to Digital Apps.” But officials stress that none of this implies that the Army is endorsing a particular product. The only certainty about the Army’s smartphone strategy is that it will be hardware agnostic.

“With the technology changing as fast as it does, it does not make sense to limit us in any way,” an Army spokeswoman says.

Of all the Army’s concerns about smartphones, none is bigger than cybersecurity. “If we don’t protect that data, it becomes open source,” Smith says at an industry conference. Many senior officials also harbor a mistrust of smartphones because they allow users to work and play at the same time. “I don’t want a guy with a mobile device attempting to bring fire against the enemy [indirect fire] and have him refresh his iTunes account,” Smith says, somewhat in jest.

A growing frustration for smartphone proponents is that the very features that make the gadgets so attractive would be neutralized by restrictive security policies.

“I need these devices and applications to be CAC enabled,” Smith says, referring to the “common access card” that military and government employees use to log into computers or to enter secure facilities.

But these are the sort of limitations that could “suck the life” out of a smartphone, Smith laments. “When we tested a smartphone, the contractor removed all restrictions so we could do neat things” such as geo-tracking or videos. “When I convert [the smartphone] to enterprise email, it becomes a paperweight that I can get my email on,” he says.

An essential question the Army is still grappling with is “how can I make this device helpful to the soldier?” he says.

The Army’s former CIO, Lt. Gen. Jeffrey Sorensen, garnered the media spotlight when he launched “Apps for the Army” more than a year ago. But the vision is still catching up with the service’s onerous regulations. “We need a way that we can vet the applications,” Smith says. “If you go to some companies, they can vet applications in hours or days, and it takes us 81 months,” he says. “There has to be a happy medium. We need an apps store with TTPs [tactics, techniques and procedures] that you’ve already worked.” Any phone would have to be equipped with remote-wipe features to ensure the data can be erased at the Army’s discretion. “We have serious questions about operating and maintaining those apps,” Smith says.

The Army plans to launch a new apps store in 2012. The current CIO, Lt. Gen. Susan Lawrence, says there will be another “Apps for the Army” challenge that will be open to any developer. The 2010 apps effort focused on “internal Army early adopters,” says a spokeswoman for Lawrence. “This time the Army wants to tap into industry, and not just for its well-known app development capabilities, but to help them look at new ways to broaden third-party participation in the marketplace.” CIO officials now are “designing ‘monetization’ business models and addressing intellectual property rights,” in preparation for the 2012 competition.

On the hardware side, meanwhile, another contentious debate is how to go about buying phones and contracting tech-support. “What we would prefer is to increase innovation and drive down cost through competition,” Smith says. “What we’d like is a network that is agnostic … and would not care what device you bring,” he says. “We also need the tools to monitor mobile devices at the Army level, and not have to count on NSA [National Security Agency].”

Brig. Gen. Peter Fuller, who oversees procurement of soldier equipment, says the Army is trying to be realistic about how quickly it can move forward with smartphones.

“We want to get across the goal line,” he says. “We’re not there yet.”

For most people, it’s as simple as walking into a store and signing up for a cell phone plan. For the Army, it is far more complex. “How do you protect it in rugged environments? How do you acquire a signal in war zones?” Fuller asks. A considerable technical stumbling block will be how to ensure that the same device can be used anywhere a soldier goes. Army Chief of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey is “asking us to make sure we don’t set up multiple infrastructures, in garrison, in tactical environments,” Fuller says. “How do we do it seamlessly?”

The official in charge of the one-thousand-smartphones pilot program, Lt. Gen. Michael A. Vane, recently published an article on the Army’s website that sought to tamp down the hype.
“The mechanism for providing smartphone capability to all soldiers is still being explored,” says Vane, who is director of the Army Capabilities Integration Center at TRADOC. “We are currently working to identify a strategy and business model which would allow the Army to conduct a firm cost-benefit analysis for providing each soldier with a smartphone. However, this decision has not been made since we are still at the concept exploration stage.”

The concerns are not unique to the Army. The Air Force also is exploring ways to expand use of smartphones, says Lt. Gen. William T. Lord, Air Force CIO. “The kids at the pointy end of the spear … want mobility,” he says at the industry conference. But, like the Army, the Air Force worries about troops having possibly too much access to information at their fingertips. “How do we secure data?” Lord asks. “Do we tell them to park their Facebook accounts, their iPhones at the door? … What are you going to do 18 months from now when that thing [the phone] is absolutely ancient?” he says. “We’re talking the talk, but we’re not walking the walk yet, at least in the Air Force.”

The ultimate smartphone experience for the Air Force would be full-motion video streaming, he says. “Predator feeds are the crack cocaine of our business,” he says. But it is not yet possible to “provide that rich experience, rich environment to a tactical user in the foxhole.”

Suppliers of mobile tech products contend that much of the technology the military wants already exists, and could be provided relatively quickly.

Drone video feeds, for instance, can be shared via smartphones if the proper software is installed, says Brian Geoghegan, chief product officer at Reality Mobile, a startup in Herndon, Va., that specializes in “enterprise mobile technology,” which allows worldwide access to video and data via smartphones.

“To the extent that there’s a UAV [unmanned aerial vehicle] feed …. through our software you can share the image live on a smartphone,” says Geoghegan. Smartphones are nothing more than tiny computers. Any organization can have global data sharing capabilities as long as it sets up the network correctly, he says. The company already has military and intelligence community customers, whom Geoghegan would not disclose, who are already testing the product.

One benefit of enterprise-style software is that it can be used with any device, he says, although he cautions that Reality Mobile has signed a licensing deal with Motorola. Users can choose Androids, iPhones or Motorola rugged devices and still use the same software. “We work with tablets too,” he says. “There are components in the military that are only Android shops, others are only iPhone shops. … The beauty of what’s going on today is that technology is advancing so rapidly.”

Security and encryption, like anything else in a smartphone, can be handled via software, Geoghegan says. He gives praise to the NSA for unleashing standards, such as Suite B, that help vendors make products that meet U.S. government needs. A CAC-card phone may be appropriate for classified communications, but it would make a device too expensive for the average user. “Not every soldier will carry the ultra secret multi-thousand-dollar devices with a CAC card,” he says.

Defense and intelligence agencies that are seeking greater use of smartphones would benefit from early planning, ahead of making any purchases, about what information they need and who will need it, Geoghegan says.

“We spend a lot of time with IT departments,” he says. Mobile tech suppliers typically would need to know where the servers will be located, who the authorized users are and how the communications networks will be set up. For the military, that would likely be a combination of mobile ad-hoc networks, wi-fi hotpots and cell phone towers. A contractor has to be able to support all those communications services in a package that is easy for an enterprise to administer, he says.

The military is jumping into the smartphone world at a time when the market in general is exploding, he says. “It’s astonishing how rapidly you can share information in real time around the world,” Geoghegan says. “The smartphone and tablet markets have changed the dynamics.”

For the private sector, the mobile tech business is creating more opportunities for suppliers other than incumbent defense contractors.

The military should not have to pay thousands of dollars per device to shield smartphones from intrusions or malware, says Rick Segal, CEO of Fixmo Inc., of Sterling, Va. The company developed a mobile-device protection software, called Sentinel, under an NSA contract.

Segal believes that the military, contrary to the conventional wisdom, is way ahead of the private sector when it comes to smartphone security.

“Industry is paying attention to this issue on the civilian side,” says Segal. “I think the government, especially the Defense Department, is going to lead the charge and you’re going to see the civilian world follow the lead.”

Private corporations such as banks, law firms and hospitals want to protect data as much as the military does, he says. “They’re going to get the benefits of the military blazing that trail.”

Off-the-shelf security software means the Army doesn’t have to pay a fortune to protect smartphones, Segal says, but he still does not envision the Army issuing every soldier a mobile device. “That is probably never going to happen,” he says. “It is more likely that they will issue some to mission critical specialists, company commanders or senior sergeants.” As far as everyone else goes, what is likely to happen is the military might mimic what many corporations already do: allow employees to bring in their own “personal liability” devices.

That means they would be allowed to use their personal phones or computers on the enterprise’s network. With so-called “mobile device management” tools, an organization can protect proprietary or sensitive data.

“That’s what industry is doing today because everyone has a different phone make and model,” Segal says. “It’s more likely you’ll see that happen than have the government hand everyone a mobile device.” Soldiers typically prefer to have their own phones with their Facebook and Twitter accounts, he says. “The military would be better off letting them use their devices with the proper protection instead of taking away someone’s iPhone and handing them a Blackberry.”                          

Topics: C4ISR, Tactical Communications, Land Forces

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