July 23, 2012: South Korea has joined the U.S., and several other countries, in developing battlefield versions of smart phones. The South Koreans have developed nine military applications for smart phones using the Android operating system. These include apps for functions like maps, video transfer, navigation, and intelligence. By the end of the year, the South Korean military will decide on which phone to use and how quickly it will be deployed. The South Koreans have one major advantage in they plan on using existing cell phone networks, since any future war would be fought in South Korea. There are also plans for mobile cell phone towers, to restore service to bombed out areas, or places like North Korea where there never were cell phone towers. U.S. forces have always cooperated closely with their South Korean allies and that appears to be at work here. South Korea is the source of over a third of Android smart phones (the largest manufacturer, Samsung, is South Korea). Moreover, South Korea is the most wired nation on the planet, in terms of the percentage of the population that have electronic communications gadgets and access to high-speed Internet. South Korean soldiers, like their American counterparts, want battlefield Internet via a smart phone type device.
That said, work on battlefield smart phones has been going on for several years now. Earlier this year the American NSA (National Security Agency) created a version of the cell phone/tablet Android operating system suitable for combat use. SE (Security Enhanced) Android is based on a SE Linux that NSA developed 12 years ago. NSA has been active for decades in "hardening" PC operating systems. Since Android is based on Linux, NSA had a head start in creating SE Android.
SE Android is the last key element the U.S. Army needs to move commercial smart phones and tablets onto the battlefield. Last year the army began field testing the Atrix smart phone and Galaxy tablet. Both use Android and are designated as NWEUD (Nett Warrior End-User Device) by the military.
"Nett Warrior" (after Medal of Honor winner Robert Nett) will drop the decade old wearable computer concept and replace it with a smart phone/tablet version (NWEUD). What makes this possible is SE Android, which provides the security (from enemy eavesdropping, hacking, and such) from problems that plague commercial cell phones and tablets.
Earlier attempts to create smart phone capabilities for combat troops produced a 2.3 kg (5 pound) wearable (and networked) computer with an eyepiece for the display and a handheld (or worn on the arm) input device (keyboard). This Nett Warrior system integrated radio, GPS, and 16 GB of storage for maps, pictures, or whatever. Troops found the system too heavy and not as easy to use as a smart phone or tablet. Soldiers and marines know that most smart phones can do the same job as Nett Warrior, and now the army agrees and has been testing Atrix and Galaxy to see how commercial designs can be used to replace the older NWEUD prototypes.
Over half a century of studies have discovered what an infantryman needs to be more effective. A key capability is the need to know where they are, quickly. Having a poor idea of where you are has long been one of the main shortcomings of armored vehicles. Armored vehicle crews tend to be cut off from this while inside their vehicle where they are even more easily disoriented. When the shooting starts even the vehicle commander, instead of standing up with his head outside the turret, often ducks back inside to stay alive. Infantry aren't much better off. Although they can see their surroundings they are often crouching behind something. When getting shot at standing up to look around is not much of an option.
Nett Warrior gives Team Leaders and Squad Leaders (and eventually each infantryman) a smart phone, perhaps still using an eyepiece as a display (attached to the helmet and flips down for use) and the smart phone/tablet touch screen to control the thing. GPS puts the soldier's location on the map shown in the eyepiece. During testing in Iraq, infantry officers and NCOs equipped with map equipped GPS receivers (at first, then smart phones) found the map/GPS combo a tremendous aid to getting around and getting the job done. Nett Warrior also provided a wireless networking capability, so troops not only saw where they were in their eyepiece but could receive new maps and other information. Another feature that got dropped was using a vidcam to transmit images to headquarters, their immediate commander, or simply to the other guys in their squad. On the plus side the Nett Warrior gear provided the same capability as the 2003 "Blue Force Tracker" and showed Team Leaders and Squad Leaders, via his eyepiece, where all the other guys in his unit are. When fighting inside a building this can be a life saver.
Nett Warrior type capabilities are already changing the way troops fight. Everyone is now able to move around more quickly, confidently, and effectively. This has already been demonstrated with the Stryker units equipped with Nett Warrior type gear. Captured enemy gunmen often complained of how the Land Warrior equipped Strykers came out of nowhere and skillfully maneuvered to surround and destroy their targets. This was often done at night, with no lights (using night vision gear). When you have infantry using Nett Warrior gear to do the same thing on foot you demoralize the enemy.
For a long time the biggest problem was a rather mundane one, battery power. Expected advances in battery technology did not appear, so even if all the technology worked there was no way to carry sufficient batteries, much less keep Nett Warrior users supplied with them. Rechargeable batteries, with a longer life between charges, have largely solved that problem but largely by not solving the weight problem.
Troops in combat have some unique problems keeping smart phones operational. Ruggedness is relatively easy to create, although you pay for it. Then there’s the problem of providing a reliable signal. But that’s long been a problem and there are a lot of new solutions that will work with a smart phone. Then there’s the need for encryption. Again, that’s another problem handled by SE Android. If the smart phone manufacturers and the NSA (SE Android) deliver, the troops will use it. They most certainly want it.