Defense Dept. Unveils New Plan for Purchasing Mobile Devices
By Sandra I. Erwin
The Pentagon for years has tried to tap commercial wireless technology, with mixed results. Stringent requirements for secrecy have been a hurdle, as the government fears that commercial devices are vulnerable to intrusions, data theft and other cybercrimes.
The Defense Department has purchased about 600,000 mobile devices for official use, and at least 50,000 are encrypted for classified communications. But so far these products have been purchased at premium prices under pilot programs overseen by disparate organizations. Pentagon officials are now seeking to broaden the accessibility to mobile technology. They said they are confident that industry can now provide acceptable levels of encryption to handle classified data, at affordable prices.
Encrypted phones provided by military contractors have been known to cost from $3,000 to $10,000 a copy, depending on the features. The Pentagon is now expecting much lower prices for commercially-based secure devices.
The Defense Department has requested bids from vendors for a package of products and services that includes mobile devices, wireless infrastructure and software applications. The plan is to centralize the procurement and management of phones, tablets and apps under the Defense Information Systems Agency.
The new effort, called the “commercial mobile device implementation plan,” follows a six-month study led by the office of the Defense Department’s Chief Information Officer Teresa M. Takai.
“We will be able to not only use multiple commercial devices, but we will have a better process for bringing new commercial devices onto the network,” Takai told the Armed Forces Press Service. “The challenge for DoD is to balance the concern of cybersecurity with the need to have the capability of these devices,” she said.
The first step in the plan is to equip the current 600,000 mobile device users — most of whom own BlackBerries — with a new generation of phones and tablets from various suppliers.
Maj. Gen. Robert Wheeler, the Defense Department’s deputy chief information officer, told reporters Feb. 26 that vendors are being asked to offer proposals that are “device agnostic,” to prevent the Pentagon from becoming dependent on any one company. “We’ll have a family of phones and tables.” All devices will have to comply with common “enterprise” standards, he said. Another mandatory feature is compliance with Federal Information Processing Standard Publication 140-2 computer security standards.
The average commercial phone or tablet is not acceptable to the Defense Department. Vendors will have to offer devices that look and feel like standard store-bought devices but are equipped with advanced encryption software and are able to read government “common access cards” that allow entry to classified networks.
Wheeler declined to provide any estimates on what this initiative might cost. It will be up to vendors to provide an attractive enough pricing model to secure a Pentagon contract.
John Hickey, Defense Information Systems Agency mobility program manager, said the goal is to select vendors by late spring or early summer. Competitors could choose to bid in teams or as single companies.
Previous attempts by military agencies to acquire smartphones were handicapped by the Defense Department wanting to have it both ways: Taking advantage of low-cost commercial technology but expecting industry to provide advanced encryption at low prices.
That might not have been possible several years ago but the wireless industry is now able to offer products that are closer to what the Pentagon wants. A surge in cyber crime worldwide has sparked industry investments in protective software. Because the Pentagon is a niche market, any investment in new encryption technology for Defense Department contracts could be costly for industry. But the growing demand for encryption in other sectors such as banking would allow firms to amortize their investment, Wheeler said. “The whole concept of routing traffic to a gateway is done in the commercial sector and the carriers do provide that. We are not asking for something that is not out there.”
The latest mobile technology plan follows several unsuccessful attempts to bring smartphones into the military mainstream The U.S. Army jumped into the fray in 2010 when it launched “iPhones for soldiers,” “Apps for the Army” and other initiatives. But these and several other programs across the Defense Department have not moved past the pilot stage.
Wheeler said the new plan could boost productivity across the Defense Department.
A study sponsored by the Defense Department last year noted that “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.”
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