Is It Smart for the US Army to Develop Smartphones?
The US Army soldier is burdened with C4ISR technology. The soldier uses a handheld radio to talk to other soldiers and commanders, Blue Force Tracker to track friendly and enemy forces, a portable GPS receiver to determine location, a ROVER system to receive UAV video feeds, and, if he or she is lucky enough, an Afghan interpreter to communicate with the locals.
What if all these things could be brought together on one device – a smartphone that millions use every day in civilian life. The US Army has undertaken an effort, called Connecting Soldiers to Digital Applications (CSDA), to develop smartphones for the office and the battlefield, such as tracking enemy movements, determining locations of fellow soldiers, sending intelligence reports, and receiving live UAV video.
There are a number of obstacles to this bold vision, however, not the least of which is security. How will the Army ensure that all of this classified information is protected using open source commercial technology?
CSDA: the US Army’s Smartphone Initiative
The main effort by the US Army to introduce smartphones on the battlefield is the 2-phase Connecting Soldiers to Digital Applications (CSDA) initiative. The 1st phase involves testing the use of smartphones for non-combat use, such as administrative tasks and training, noted Ed Mazzanti, deputy director of requirements integration at the Army Capabilities Integration Center.
“We want to determine if there is value added (with the use of smartphones) in doing administrative tasks and for delivery training content to our soldiers. The big effort right now is to see how much of the training content we currently have in digitized form can we make useful on a smartphone screen.”
The 2nd phase would take the smartphone to the battlefield to see how it works in the combat environment. A major concern in that environment is whether communication over the smartphone would be secure. Mazzanti observes:
“There is just any number of ways that we might be able to use the smartphone technology if we can make it operate in a secure manner and if we can generate an expeditionary cellular network that we can move on the battlefield with us.”
To stimulate thinking about apps for smartphones, the Army launched a competition called “Apps for the Army” on March 1, 2010. Five winners were announced at the LandWarNet Conference in early August 2010. The apps they developed along with the smartphone operating systems in parentheses are described below:
- Physical Training Program (Apple’s iOS) helps soldiers develop their own PT program based on the Army’s new Physical Readiness Training program. The app provides training plans and videos of exercises.
- Telehealth Mood Tracker (Google’s Android/ Apple’s iOS) is a self-monitoring app that allows users to track their psychological health over a period of days, weeks and months using a visual analog rating scale. Users can track experiences associated with deployment-related behavioral health issues.
- Disaster Relief (Google’s Android) is a web-based data survey, dissemination and analysis tool for searching, editing, and creating maps viewable on Google Earth and Google Maps. The app assists Army personnel working in humanitarian relief and civilian affairs operations.
- Movement Projection (Google’s Android) is a map-routing app for road navigation that allows soldiers to input obstacles and threats – in addition to stops, start and end points – and calculates the best and fastest route.
- New Recruit (Google’s Android) provides information for potential recruits. Features include military rank and insignia, Army news feeds, an Army physical fitness test calculator, and a body mass index calculator.
Although not one of the applications among the Army winners, DARPA is developing an application that would enable a smartphone to communicate with non-English speakers in the field. The TRANSTAC program is currently developing an app that enables 2-way translation of foreign languages and English.
Suppose the US Army has set up a checkpoint. A car is stopped and the driver does not speaker English. Because an interpreter is not available, US soldiers use hand gestures to ask the driver to step out of the car and open the trunk and hood for inspection. There’s a lot of room for error. This is where the DARPA smartphone app would provide assistance in translating the US soldiers’ commands and the driver’s responses.
NIST recently tested the app using the Afghan Pashto dialect. NIST Project Manager Craig Schlenoff describes the process:
“An English speaker talks into the phone. Automatic speech recognition distinguishes what is said and generates a text file that software translates to the target language. Text-to-speech technology converts the resulting text file into an oral response in the foreign language. This process is reversed for the foreign language speaker.”
Apple of the Army’s Eye
The Army has been talking with Apple about developing a version of the iPhone, as well as the iPad, iPod, iMac and MacBook platforms for soldiers’ use. In March 2010, staff from the Army’s Research, Development and Engineering Command (RDECOM) toured Apple’s headquarters.
After the tour, RDECOM commander, Maj. Gen. Nick Justice commented:
“The Army is moving away from big-green-box solutions and towards those that will adapt along with our warfighters on the battlefield… We’re continuing to leverage commercial technology for battlefield uses; we can’t ignore that kind of existing knowledge.”
RDECOM is currently developing 2 iPhone applications for US soldiers: COIN Collector, a counter-insurgency information collection tool, and MilSpace, a combined planning and social networking tool. In addition, Army Technology Live released a public iPhone application in early 2010 that allows soldiers to access Army technology news, updates, images, and video, and can be download from the Apple iTunes Store.
The COIN and MilSpace apps were tested, along with other smartphones, at the C4ISR On-the-Move Event 10 (E10) at Fort Dix, NJ, in June 2010.
COIN enables soldiers to collect and analyze intelligence information and track significant activities by insurgents. Soldiers input the data while on patrol, and COIN uploads the information to headquarters in real-time.
The MilSpace application enables soldiers to customize their computing experience and provides a universal window that lets them view multiple data feeds and services.
Apple has developed a US Army iPhone app that provides soldiers access to the Army official homepage, news, and videos from the army.mil website, access to Army social media sites and blogs, as well as podcasts, Soldiers Magazine, and other Army-related information.
The iPod Touch is already out in the field providing translation software capabilities, as well as the ability to download maps, and link text or voice to photos. The battlefield iPod Touch is enclosed in a protective casing.
Software developers are developing software for iPods that will enable soldiers to display UAV video and conduct teleconferences. Another iPod Touch/iPhone application, developed by Knight’s Armament and called BulletFlight, is able to calculate ballistics for US military snipers.
Applications for the iPhone and iPod Touch are not the only ones out there being tested by the Army.
Raytheon & Google Breed RATS!
Raytheon is developing Google Android-based smartphone applications called the Raytheon Android Tactical System (RATS). The applications are accessed like any commercial smartphone, using the touch-screen and keyboard for navigation. The applications can be used on any smartphone, although there were developed for Google’s Android platform, notes Mark Bigham, vice president of business development for Raytheon’s Defense and Civil Mission Solutions.
In an interview with DID, Bigham explained that the RATS applications works on a standard smartphone, so the soldier can use it to make voice calls, send emails, chat, and browse the Internet. Most soldier already have commercial smartphones, so the RATS applications could be loaded on to them. But there are also battlefield applications that make it suitable for the Army’s smartphone initiative.
Bigham said Raytheon is working on a number of RATS apps:
- buddy tracking – a GPS-based application that enables soldiers to track other soldiers.
- sensor sharing – the soldiers can share sensor information gathered by the smartphone, such as pictures from the camera, as well as by UAVs with other soldiers on the buddy list.
- fingerpaint – a teleprompter-type application that enables a soldier to take a picture and draw on the screen to indicate important information, such as a suspect vehicle or person, and send it back to headquarters for ID.
- inputting information – an app that allows soldiers on patrol to input information and observations into the broader Army intelligence network.
“Some of the best data about what is going on is at the individual soldier level, so what we want to do is make sure that data gets back into the bigger systems like the DCGS [ISR network] so they can have the benefit of what the soldier is seeing…The soldier needs to understand what is going on at the individual level. Who are the key people in the village, who are the decision makers…So every time a squad goes through that village, they don’t have to learn from scratch who the good guys are, who the bad guys are, and who the people in the middle are.”
Cell phone coverage in places like Afghanistan could be a problem. However, Bigham noted that there is 3G coverage in the major cities. Outside of the cities, the RATS phone would work on a layered infrastructure. Raytheon has partnered with Ericsson, which makes a portable 3G base station that can be attached to any tower or balloon and a larger system that can fly on aircraft or larger aerostats for wider coverage.
What if the smartphone fell into the wrong hands? Bigham explained it could be disabled remotely to prevent an unauthorized person from using it. Similar remote locking applications are already available on civilian phones.
For security, RATS would encrypt communication links, but it is unclear whether this encryption would be sufficient for the demanding security requirements on the battlefield.
“There is a security balancing act. You want to get a smartphone in every soldier’s hands to provide better information. But you have to be careful about how much encryption you demand. If your goal is the maximize the number of soldiers that have the phone, you have to be careful about where you draw the line on how much encryption is enough because if you do too much, you have to do hardware-only crypto, which requires special keys, so you’ve limited the phone to 1/100th of the Army. We are trying to show that there are good, solid low-risk options where you can get good enough encryption but still maximize the smartphone’s reach.”
Bigham said that RATS version 1 is ready to go. He noted that the Army tested RATS, along with other smartphones and applications, at the C4ISR On-the-Move exercise held at Fort Dix, NJ in June 2010, as well as the CDSA “digital rodeo” held at Fort Bliss, TX, in July 2010.
Digital Rodeo @ Fort Dix
Fort Dix’s digital rodeo was specifically designed to test types of smartphones and applications. For the exercise, 200 soldiers from 5th Brigade, 1st Armored Division, were issued 1 of several types of smartphones using the Android, Windows Mobile, or Apple operating system as part of a 2-phase evaluation.
Maj. Gen. Keith Walker, the commanding general of the Army’s Future Force Integration Directorate (FFID), said the purpose of the 1st phase was for soldiers to use the smartphone to access training, maintenance, and supply manuals. The 2nd phase, which will test battlefield applications, is expected to begin sometime next year.
“We’re going to develop a 2nd phase where we look at tactical applications that will connect the individual soldier into the tactical network where that soldier can see things perhaps now only a more senior commander would have access to. So one of the things we will be doing with the 5th Brigade, 1st Armored Division is running an exercise in the future where the individual soldiers will have those phones and in tactical scenarios will do an evaluation – how do you employ this? How do you organize for this? What’s the proper way to train to use this?”
Putting smartphone technology in the hands of soldiers would provide situational knowledge as they are en route to a particular location, and while they’re dismounted could increase survivability, said Col. Marisa Tanner, chief of FFID’s Mission Command Capabilities Division.
“In combat, if [soldiers] need information of a tribal chief that they’ve just been tasked to go engage – they have insight before they conduct the engagement…Before, a soldier would have to sit through a series of traffic, or wait for traffic or get back on the road to drive to get an update – we’re now putting that soldier in harm’s way every time you put him back on the road in a threat environment that has an IED every other block. So if we could minimize that [threat] – that’s huge. If you look at it – that’s a counter-IED capability.”
Problems: Security, Coverage, Compatibility
Reading through manuals on your smartphone does not pose any security concerns, although it might put the soldier to sleep. But once you introduce smartphones into the battlefield, it’s a whole new ballgame.
Raytheon’s Bigham said that the RATS application has “good enough encryption.” But what is “good enough encryption” on the battlefield? The Army’s recognition of this significant security liability has prompted it to try out smartphones in 2 phases: admin/training uses first, then battlefield use.
What makes smartphones so attractive in the civilian world – open-source software and ability to receive calls from any carrier’s network – make it a nightmare for the battlefield.
Security is by far the biggest challenge. Army communication devices currently require NSA Type 1 encryption, but adding this to an Army smartphone would add considerably to the expense and reduce the availability.
Another problem is coverage. In the United States, cell phones didn’t take off until there were enough cell phone towers so that people could get coverage in most areas. In places like Afghanistan, there are few cell phone towers outside of the major cities.
Soldiers would have to rely on point-to-point line of sight radio networks and satellites. The technology is available, but again it would make the Army smartphone more expensive, probably as expensive as the current Iridium satellite phones used by the US military for remote voice communication.
A third problem is compatibility. If a proprietary operating system is used, this would make it easier to secure but less flexible in terms of adding apps. However, if an open-source OS is used, then the security problem would be magnified since the adversary would have access to the same open-source software.
Also, to take advantage of existing systems, such as Blue Force Tracker, the smartphone would need to be able to access that information. But right now, that information can only be accessed using a proprietary Blue Force tracking device.
So what does the future hold for the Army smartphone? It might remain a niche device, providing manuals, Army news, workout videos, and mood tracking. Or could the smartphone become the all-in-one battlefield device that some visionaries foresee?
For now, the Army has accepted the smartphone’s limitations. It has divided development and testing into 2 phases – niche uses and battlefield uses.
It may turn about that the security concerns make smartphones unusable on the battlefield. But it may be that the security and connectivity issues can be overcome. Then, the smartphone could become the device that eases the C4ISR technology burden for the soldier, bringing together C2, communications, computer, and ISR technology right at the US soldier’s finger tips.
Contracts and Key Events
“We have a number of pilots inside TRADOC…but we now have several theater commanders asking for these capabilities to deploy with them in combat…If we can figure out the smart cost/benefit way of doing this, it probably makes sense [to give every soldier a smartphone] in the long run.”
Nov 29/10: The US Army Research, Development and Engineering Command’s Communications-Electronics Research, Development and Engineering Center (CERDAC) launched a program in October called the Multi-Access Communications Extender (MACE) to develop a tactical communications architecture that can support smartphone devices on the tactical battlefield, CERDEC’s Tony Fiuza told a DODLive Bloggers Roundtable [PDF]. Fuiza said that CERDEC is developing a broad agency announcement for MACE that will be issued sometime in early 2011. He said that the center was looking at commercial smartphones, such as Android, iPhone, and Samsung, as part of the MACE program.
Key Contacts as of October 2010
- Mark A. Bigham, VP of business development, Raytheon’s Defense and Civil Mission Solutions, tel: 972-205-6677, email: mark.bigham at raytheon.com
- Maj Gen Nick Justice, Army RDECOM Commander, tel: 732-427-4937, email: Nick.Justice at us.army.mil
- Lt Gen Michael Vane, Deputy Commanding General, Futures/Director, Army Capabilities Integration Center, tel: 703-602-3102
- Maj Gen Keith Walker, director of the Army’s Future Force Integration Directorate, Fort Bliss, TX, tel: 915-568-2121
- LA Times (September 2011) – Taking iPads into battle
- National Defense (June 2011) – Smartphones-for-Soldiers Campaign Hits Wall as Army Experiences Growing Pains
- Army develops smartphone framework, applications for the front lines: The Joint Battle Command-Platform (JBC-P)
- Raytheon – Raytheon Android Tactical System (RATS)
- Raytheon – Mark Bigham Discusses RATS at AUSA
- StrategyPage (Oct 11/10) – The Impossible smart Phone Dream
- Defense Systems (Sep 8/10) – Army gets out front on warfighter communications and intelligence
- TechNewsDaily (Aug 2/10) – Military Developing ‘Universal Translator’ on Smartphones
- Daniweb.com (Aug 2/10) – Smartphone Translation Tool Readied for Use by Troops in Afghanistan
- US Army (July 30/10) – ‘Digital rodeo’ helps Army look at smart-phone apps
- C4ISR Journal (Aug 1/10) – Year of the smart phone
- DID (July 29/10) – Apriva to Upgrade Secure Gateway for Secure PDAs
- Reuters (July 21/10) – Smartphones could be latest battle accessory
- NIST (July 21/10) – Breaking the Language Barrier: NIST Tests Afghan Language Translation Devices for US Troops
- Stars and Stripes (July 11/10) – Army to test smart phone apps to train soldiers
- US Army News Service (May 27/10) – Army to test smartphones for offices, battlefields
- Defense Systems (May 21/10) – Why smart phones might become the Army’s secret weapon
- Defense Systems (May 21/10) – Smart phones prepare for battle
- National Defense Magazine (May 2010) – Army’s iPhone Dreams Clash with Reality
- El Paso IT Examiner (March 27/10) – US Army testing use of smartphone applications
- US Army (March 22/10) – Army, Apple meet to discuss hand-held solutions for Soldiers
- Live Science (March 3/10) – Army Turns to Smartphone ‘Apps’ to Win Wars
- Wired.com (March 2/10) – A Combat Zone iPhone? Soldiers Have an App for That
- NextGov (March 1/10) – Army plans to test iPhone-like applications for the battlefield
- FedBizOpps (Feb 11/10) – Small Business Sources Sought for Connecting Soldiers to Digital Applications Training Analysis
- Mobile Enterprising (Jan 22/10) – US Army Dives into Mobile Apps Field
- Forbes (Oct 19/09) – Raytheon Sends Android to Battlefield
- Newsweek (April 17/09) – Apple’s New Weapon