January 3, 2011: The U.S. Army is desperately seeking a better way to get the Internet onto the battlefield. This is really, really urgent because the troops continue to demonstrate how important Internet connectivity is to winning battles. There are so many useful tools on the Internet, that simply having access gives you an edge. This has already been demonstrated many times in the past seven years. It was in Iraq that combat troops were first able to obtain Internet access in a combat zone, and the troops quickly demonstrated how useful this was for maintaining morale, and getting the job done. The army hustled, and used commercial firms to quickly arrange access. But this was mainly wired access on bases. The troops want wi-fi while under fire.
This has been driven by a trend, in the last decade, for Internet access to become available on more powerful cell phones ("smart phones"). These devices are extremely popular with the troops, and this is the kind of device they feel comfortable using on the battlefield. So now the army is not only seeking to get Internet access to the battlefield, but to find a way that the troops can access it via a smart phone.
The military is experimenting with using commercial gear to create large wi-fi or cell phone coverage hot spots. This has already been tested, and actually deployed in support of disaster relief operations. There is also a lot of work underway to develop a cell phone that could survive battlefield use.
Last year, one defense supplier (Raytheon) also responded to what the troops were calling for, and quickly put together RATS (Raytheon Android Tactical System). Taking advantage of the open source Android operating system (think of it as mobile Linux), and the thousands of applications already available for it, RATS combines this with increasingly powerful, and inexpensive smart phone hardware, to produce something the troops want. Actually, RATS isn't a phone, it's a wi-fi device that looks like one (as does the Ipod Touch). RATS has GPS, a compass, vidcam and software that enables users to connect, and show each other's location on the screen. It's also possible to operate robots with RATS, or receive video from a UAV overhead (like the five pound Raven the army uses thousands of.) RATS has mapping software, and the ability to download maps and use them with the wi-fi location system to provide a constantly updated view of where everyone is. Typically, gear like RATS is carried by officers and NCOs (down to team- groups of five troops- leaders or vehicle commanders). RATS can also send or receive video or pix. The touch screen makes RATS easy to use in combat. RATS was developed quickly, in part to demonstrate how quickly one can turn a commercial cell phone into a water and shock proof, encrypted device, ready for the battlefield.
Army brass quickly became aware of RATS, and now there's an effort to get something like it into the hands of the troops. This speedy response is largely the result of American infantry officers, especially those with combat experience in Iraq and Afghanistan, having become tech-heads. That was not hard to do, because 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. Many of the troops have cell phones. Smart phones, like the iPhone and Android models, are popular. These smart phones can use thousands of programs, and some of these are very useful for military personnel. These gearhead troops understand how useful RATS or iPhone could be with software designed for military purposes.
Now the 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. It is believed that creating a militarized version of the smart phone 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. But the normal time it takes to develop new military tech is measured in years, often a decade or more. Commercial cell phones become obsolete in less than a year.
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.
Prototype MSPs (Military Smart Phones) like RATS are already out there, being tested. It remains to be seen if all this activity will actually put a smart phone into the hands of combat troops anytime soon. To help improve the odds of success, the army is taking a combat brigade, and using the 4,000 troops in the brigade to test new technology under realistic combat conditions. No real bullets, but lots of real dust, sand and running around outside and exposing the new gadgets to the rough and tumble of a combat zone.
If the troops who field tested a new item approve, the new item gets issued to more brigades. If those troops have trouble with it, they know who to complain to, or ask for some technical assistance from.