October 11, 2010: The U.S. Department of Defense is trying to develop a smart phone for the combat troops. The biggest problem they will encounter will be the Department of Defense. The problem is simple. Troops have increasingly been using their cell phones, including a growing number of smart phones (iPhone and Android in particular). These phones are very useful in a combat zone, and officers up to the top of the food chain have noticed this. So the decision has been made to create a militarized version of the smart phone. This should be quite possible, as the Department of Defense has been increasingly successful in "militarizing" (often with nothing more than a new coat of paint) superior civilian gear for military use.
Smart phones need a bit more customizing for military use. First, there is the problem of ruggedness. The battlefield is a hostile environment, and only the sturdy gear survives. The military has already coped with laptop computers and GPS devices. There are military/industrial versions available that survive harsh environments. No reason this cannot be done with smart phones. Actually, it's already been done, by improvising, with soft cases already sold for smart phones. There is always a commercial market for this sort of thing, to supply those who work on construction sites or other dangerous (for delicate gear) environments. This tends to suit troops out in the combat zone. But the other problem, data security, is a larger problem. Most cell phone messages are already encrypted, but not with a strong enough cipher to satisfy the military.
Stronger encryption for smart phones is not a huge problem, but how it is achieved is. That's because the smart phones are so useful and popular because they are rapidly evolving. Military research and development is the opposite of rapidly evolving. So is the Department of Defense procurement bureaucracy, which is infamous for taking decades to get new stuff developed and to the troops. So unless you adapt a system that can use the latest tech, and just add on the padding and military grade crypto, any military smart phones you develop will quickly become obsolete before it even reaches the troops. This has already happened with other electronic items.
One American defense manufacturer took the optimistic route and developed a battlefield smart phone on their own. In the works for two years, the RATS (Raytheon Android Tactical System) uses a modification of the Android software used on millions of smart phones. Android equipped phones actually outsell iPhones, and the RATS phone will be able to use existing Android apps, as well as special military apps. Some of these will only work on RATS, which handles encryption and military type communications. Currently, RATS is running on several Motorola and HTC type smart phones. Raytheon began working on RATS as soon as Google released Android.
Meanwhile, Apple has been increasingly cooperative with the Department of Defense, and adapting the iPhone, Touch and iPad to military use. With over two million highly educated employees, the Department of Defense is the biggest single customer you can have. The ultimate whale, as any sales manager will tell you. All this has happened recently, as it was only three years ago that the iPhone, a very unique and popular smart phone design, went on sale. Since then, over 300 million iPhones, and similar "smart phones" have been sold.
Some of the most eager buyers of this technology have been American soldiers. This should come as no surprise, as U.S. soldiers and marines who have fought in Iraq and Afghanistan have become tech-heads, courtesy of all the electronic gear combat troops now carry. Officers often have laptops with them in combat, to display maps, overhead UAV video, satellite photos and all manner of data needed for them to fight smarter and more effectively. The troops use night-vision gear, electronic rifle sights and much more. Some get to handle portable radars that can see through walls and binoculars that have laser range finders and electronic links to artillery units.
Most importantly, nearly all the troops have cell phones. And a disproportionate number of soldiers have smart phones. The iPhone or Android models can use thousands of cheap, or free, programs, and some of these are very useful for military personnel. Early on, it was realized how useful smart phones could be with software designed for military purposes. Raytheon, as well as many military people, realized that a military version of the smart phone, able to operate on a closed military network, would be a big help in the combat zone. But many troops believed that the military procurement system, which often takes more than a decade to get new gear into the hands of the troops, could never deliver a military smart phone in time. But many senior commanders proceeded try and prove that smart phones would enter regular military use sooner, rather than later. Within two years of the iPhone's release, the U.S. Army was soliciting iPhone and Android apps for military use. Now some of these apps are being used by troops in basic training, and more advanced operations as well. On a test basis, some troops are being issued smart phones. Raytheon took this as an encouraging sign and moved ahead with RATS.
All this is part of a fundamental generational shift in the military regarding technology. In the last decade, a generation has come of age that expects to carry around a phone, and stay connected 24/7. Their elders have also picked up on this convenience, to the point where the U.S. Army is eager for things like RATS. The army is already issuing more and more of its training, operations and maintenance manuals as pdf files that can be viewed on smart phones (or Ipod Touch and iPad devices). The troops have long sought this feature, and have often just gone ahead and done it themselves.
In Afghanistan and Iraq, where widespread cell phone service followed in the wake of the American invasions, many U.S. troops purchased local cell phone service, and used these phones when on combat operations. But the troops want more out of their phones than just instant communications. Like many business users, military personnel see the many potential uses of "smart phones." These are cell phones with personal computer like power, and capabilities. Last year, 14 percent of the cell phones shipped were smart phones (the Blackberry, Androids and iPhones are the more popular models, in that order). This year, the percentage for smart phones is expected to more than double. Smart phones are particularly popular with businesses, where most of them are used. Nearly half of business users let their smart phone replace their laptop at least some of the time. But many business users are pushing for smart phones powerful enough to replace their laptops a lot more often.
For commanders, a military smart phone like RATS has numerous advantages. First, there's the convenience of having most of your unit data literally at your finger tips. Status of troops, ammo, equipment and the inevitable todo list, as well as maps and plans for future, or past, operations. Smart phones can also push data onto a phone, to keep databases and schedules updated. Commanders love that sort of thing, as it saves them the hassle of checking for updates. And updates are a lot easier to collect with everyone connected. Senior NCOs can much more easily poll troops by texting them to get current status of things like ammo, sleep, food or health. Commanders like to stay on top of these items.
The army is in a hurry to get this working, because commercial smart phones are getting smarter and cheaper, and a lot more troops are getting them. Moreover, new smart phone models come out each year, and things like RATS would be more effective if they could keep up with that development cycle. That's what makes RATS so encouraging, as the product is basically software. As new hardware comes out, the latest RATS rev is there ready to send that Android iron to war.
While troops favor stuff like personal radio sets (which came of age in Iraq), they also know that cell phones can do the same thing, and more. So they want cell phones that would simply plug into the helmet headset. The army also has to deal with troops demand for iPod features (the most widespread "handheld computer"). Something like RATS would also be able to take stills and videos, and the troops like to carry favorite vids with them. Combining business and pleasure is not encouraged in the military, but the RATS phone is also a very personal piece of gear. It might even be able to use civilian cell networks as well, meaning that every troop will be issued one.
The effort to deliver something like RATS was long seen as a lost cause. But the demand is strong, and growing. The Department of Defense, and especially the army, is increasingly addressing the need for smart phones that can do things the troops need. Money is being spent to create military apps, and troops are encouraged to write these apps. It's not just training and electronic documents, but doing calculation heavy battlefield chores, like navigation, intel analysis and mission planning. The demand is growing, and so is the supply. And, unlike in the past, the brass, who grew up as part of the PC and video game generation, are not standing in the way. The Department of Defense cell phone project might even succeed.