Pentagon Playing Catch-Up With Mobile Technology
The largest federal bureaucracy, the Defense Department, has dabbled in commercial mobile communications for many years, but has found the consumer market unfriendly to the Pentagon way of doing business. Government procurement culture, officials have recognized, is diametrically incompatible with the fast-moving consumer electronics industry. Another stumbling block to military technology buyers is that most commercial devices aren’t rugged enough for combat and are useless in undeveloped areas where U.S. forces tend to deploy. The requirement for secrecy also has been a hurdle to the widespread use of mobile devices, as the government fears that commercial systems are too vulnerable to intrusions, data theft and other cybercrimes.
The U.S. Army jumped into the mobile technology fray in 2010 with great fanfare when it started “iPhones for soldiers,” “Apps for the Army” and other initiatives that were aimed at burnishing its image as a tech-savvy organization. The Navy supplies smartphones to sailors and Marines aboard aircraft carriers to help them navigate their way around the ship, and to locate and track other crew members.
But these and several other programs across the Defense Department have not moved past the pilot stage. The government has struggled with how to “institutionalize” mobile technology.
With this in mind, Pentagon buyers and policy makers will begin a six-month study that could result in guidelines for purchasing and employing mobile devices.
The study, under the auspices of the Defense Department’s chief information officer and the office of the undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics, is scheduled to be launched in July. A group of industry representatives will be helping the CIO collect and analyze data on mobile device development and distribution, according to the “terms of reference” of the study.
Gary L. Winkler, subcommittee chair of the National Defense Industrial Association C4ISR Division, is leading the study. He said the results, conclusions and recommendations will be submitted to Defense Department officials, who will then seek to formulate guidelines for how to bring advanced mobile technology into government operations.
The study’s terms of reference acknowledge that the mobile-tech train long ago left the station and that Pentagon policy makers have much catching up to do. “The cumulative average growth rate of smartphones and tablets has been 57 percent from 2009 to 2012, whereas the growth rate for desktops and notebook computers has been only 10 percent over the same period.” A mobile data explosion is significantly outpacing overall IP traffic growth, the TOR document said. “DoD organizations must recognize the impact that mobile devices and applications have on their missions, and quickly move to take advantage of the technology while mitigating the risks this new era introduces. … Mobile technologies have the potential to significantly improve command, control, communications and intelligence for the DoD and intelligence agencies by extending the power and reach of computer-based capabilities.”
The timeline for the Pentagon’s study parallels the recent White House release of a “Digital Government Strategy” to federal agencies.
The document noted that the federal government increasingly is expected to “be ready to deliver and receive digital information and services anytime, anywhere and on any device.” This is easier said than done however, as the government is subject to constant cyber attacks and faces a shrinking budget to buy new technology, the White House guidance said.
The document includes an “action plan” that calls for every federal agency to produce within the next six months a wide-ranging inventory of mobile devices and wireless service contracts. It also requires that agencies evaluate, over the next 12 months, their contracting practices and mobile-related procurements.