Electronic Weapons: Rapidly Evolving Tactical Smart Phones


September 11, 2020: Two years after releasing the Galaxy S9 Tactical (military grade) Edition phone, Samsung followed up with the faster, larger Galaxy S20 Tactical. Samsung has been producing tactical (ruggedized military) versions of its phones since 2012. The S20 costs about 40 percent more than the S9 but provides more battery life, a larger and sharper screen, more RAM and storage and a faster processor. Many of the custom military Android apps are a lot more effective with the more powerful S20. Most military users are content with the S9 but the app developers often have some software that performs much better (or at all) with more speed and memory.

Since 2012 the U.S. Army has been seeking out and purchasing cell phones rugged enough and with features that make it suitable for military use in a combat zone. These combat smart phones (CSPs) have many other names (like Tactical Edition) but all must be as flexible and up-to-date as their civilian counterparts. To that end, the army sought CSP designs that are rugged, cheap, and provide critical special features like encryption via software, not custom hardware. Since even the smart phone hardware is rapidly evolving, CSPs should cost the army less than $300 each and be built to get replaced every two years or less. This price is about what 2012 cell phones sold (wholesale, to dealers). There would be a similar, but slower, replacement schedule for the battlefield cell towers, routers, and other infrastructure. Not surprisingly, the army is allowing several different families of smart phones and supporting gear to be developed and tested. The military now spends more on CSPs because capabilities are much enhanced. In 2012 the main Samsung phone was the S3. It was then the most popular cell phone, outselling the iPhone 5 and very competitive in terms of capabilities. For their militarized S3 Samsung added an additional layer of security they called Knox and the made the Samsung CSPs the most popular.

Back in 2012 the army noted that there was already a civilian market for a similar cell phone. This was the construction and remote facilities (oil fields, mines, lumbering) market, plus the rather large number of people who hike, go camping and climb mountains. There are over a dozen of these ruggedized cell phones out there and that made it easy for the army to find the hardware. Your typical ruggedized cell phone is waterproof, resistant to shock (being dropped) easy to read in the sunlight and has lots of battery life. These models all use the Android OS (operating system), the most widely used OS on the planet.

One problem the military has encountered is the cost of obtaining certain special hardware features. The most important of these is the ability to use mesh networks. This means CSPs automatically setting themselves up as nodes of a digital radio network. Mesh networks are discouraged for commercial cell phones because there is no advantage to the cell phone companies. But for the military, all their users are one customer who often operate in areas where there are no cell phone towers. Because of that, mesh makes a lot of sense. Fortunately, some commercial manufacturers began adding mesh capability to their wi-fi hardware that is now standard on all phones. This came after noting that software that tweaked the wi-fi to enable cell phones to establish a mesh network were popular. So now the mess networking hardware is available in many phones.

Testing “ruggedized” versions of commercial smart phones for combat use has been going on for since 2009. There have also been efforts to establish standards that ensure these phones address crucial military needs. For example, in 2011 NSA (the U.S. 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 began working on in the late 1990s. 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 was the last key element the U.S. Army needed to move commercial smart phones and tablets onto the battlefield. The troops have been clamoring for a combat smart phone, and in 2011 the army began field testing the Atrix smart phone and Galaxy tablet. Both used Android and were designated as NWEUD (Nett Warrior End-User Device) by the military. The army has since gone on to test several more types of Android smart phone and tablet designs. Troops test this hardware in training and SOCOM (Special Operations Command) operators began using this stuff in combat. SE Android provides the security (from enemy eavesdropping, hacking, and such) needed and which commercial cell phones and tablets could not provide. SE Android worked pretty well, especially when worn on the forearm and usable with one hand.

The emergence of a large market for mass produced ruggedized (water and drop resistant) consumer designs has produced a lot of interest from manufacturers in producing militarized models. Sales of several hundred thousand CSPs a year to one customer is an attractive piece of business. There is also the bonus of having an edge civilian market “ruggedized” smart phones by being able to say some of your ruggedized cell phone models were “combat proven.”

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 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. The army found these custom systems far more expensive than a militarized smartphone. Soldiers and marines knew that most smart phones can do the same job and by 2010 the army agreed but had to decide which commercial designs should be used for combat testing. The older NWEUD prototypes underwent combat testing and failed. But the CSP prototypes received a much more enthusiastic response in troop tests.

Combat experienced troops were eager to try this stuff out on the battlefield, especially if the new CSP systems were a bit more reliable than current radios. This reliability issue is something most civilians don’t appreciate. Since radios got their first wide-scale workout during World War II (1939-45) traditional radio gear, despite decades of improvements, has always suffered reliability problems (hardware, atmospheric, geographical). This rarely gets featured in movies, as it slows things down. But in the real world of combat, screwed up comms is a regular fact-of-life. Cell phone tech is not perfect but it is a step up from traditional battlefield communications gear.

Over half a century of studies have discovered what an infantryman needs to be more effective. They 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.

CSPs give Team Leaders and Squad Leaders (and eventually each infantryman) a smart phone and the smart phone/tablet touch screen to control the thing. GPS puts the soldier's location on the map and the soldier knows where he is. Earlier 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. CSP also provides a wireless networking capability, so troops not only saw where they were but could receive new maps and other information. Another goal is to use a vidcam to transmit images to headquarters, their immediate commander, or simply to the other guys in their squad. Perhaps most importantly the CSP gear provides the same capability as the 2003 "Blue Force Tracker" and shows Team Leaders and Squad Leaders where all the other guys in his unit are. When fighting inside a building this can be a life saver.

CSP type capabilities were soon 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 CSP type gear. Captured enemy gunmen often complained of how the 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 CSPs to do the same thing on foot you demoralize the enemy.

Troops in combat have some unique problems keeping smart phones operational. For one thing, there’s the problem of providing a reliable signal via the digital military radios. But that’s long been a problem with all forms of military wireless communications and there are always 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. Samsung took advantage of its market dominance to ship its CSPs with Knox, an additional layer of security approved by NSA. There are CSPs from many other manufacturers but Samsung hustled and maintained its lead in market share. Worldwide Samsung has been overtaken by Chinese cell phone makers, who also make ruggedized editions. So far the Chinese CSPs are not really competitive with Western models, especially those from Samsung. Based on past experience the Chinese CSPs will catch up, and possibly surpass South Korean and other Western models.




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