February 9, 2017:
India is the latest country where the military has been forced to deal with the problems created when soldiers have their cell phones with them while on duty. Indian military personnel are not supposed to carry and use their cell phones while on duty. While technically forbidden many officers and troops carry the phones with them anyway. India is now trying more surprise inspections and escalating threats and warnings to those caught with the forbidden cell phones. Indian commanders feel they have a unique problem in that Pakistani hackers working for the military have managed to install malware (malicious hidden software secretly installed on a computer) on cell phones and laptops used by Indian offers and used that to capture what was on the infected device and also secretly turn on the camera and record what was in view. This is a problem other nations have to watch out for and the Indians say they do not have the resources of nations like Israel or the United States to deal with this.
Meanwhile other nations have confronted and handled this problem. Israel was probably the first to notice this issue. By 2005 Israel, and several other Western nations had noticed that cell phones were changing military life in unexpected ways. When on base, cell phones have proved to be an asset. It’s much easier to get in touch with people, and communicate in general. Even warship crews, when in port, make use of their cell phones on board. At sea, the navy uses walkie talkies. However, there are commercial services that connect cell phone users at sea (on cruise ships), via a satellite link, with world-wide cell phone service. The U.S. Navy eventually developed that kind of capability for users on warships, with restrictions on the link to the rest of the world.
Troops often carried their cell phones on training exercises, or even into combat zones, or even combat itself, keeping them connected to family and friends. Units have different policies on cell phone use in the field. Usually, the troops are told to turn them off when they are training, or set them on vibrate. But even when in the field (and within range of cell phone service), the troops often prefer to use their cells, rather than military radios.
By 2005 social networks were making the situation worse. For a long time the Israelis felt they couldn't ban troops from using social networking sites, mainly because most of them are reservists called up for a short period of active duty. Instead, the army just kept reminding everyone that only they can avoid deadly accidents on the information highway. When this did not work a total ban for troops, while on duty, was attempted. That didn’t work either. One problem was that for some people social networks like Facebook are an addiction.
The Israeli army tried constant reminders to soldiers to think twice before they post any military related items on the Internet. To that end, the military released information about the soldier who got prosecuted and convicted for a serious violation, emphasizing the punishment angle. Just another reminder for the troops. But since 2010 the Israelis have also come to realize that cell phones can be very useful in combat. The Americans were demonstrating this in Iraq and Afghanistan. That resulted in local commanders being given a lot of discretion on what the cell phone rules were for their troops. That led to different rules for different units and the debate rages on.
Meanwhile in South Korea the troops were going through the same problems and made it clear they just want the cell phones many have become addicted to. In 2015 China decided that morale was more important than unenforceable security rules and reduced restrictions. This was in recognition that many Chinese troops were already ignoring the rules, often with the assent (but not official permission) of their superiors. Chinese commanders have apparently noted the experience of their counterparts in other nations and decided that the best way to deal with this problem is to let the troops have their cell phones.
One reason for this Chinese approach was the impact of widespread cell phone use on the ability of the government to control the media. From the time the communists took control of China in the late 1940s until the Internet became widely available in China in the 1990s, the government controlled the media. The Internet and cell phones changed all that. It was no secret that China is fighting a losing war with cell phones in general. In 2014, the Chinese military surprised everyone by admitting that because two J-15 jet fighter test pilots had died during landing and takeoff operations on China’s first aircraft carrier and cell phone photos of the incident soon appeared on the Internet. Such testing and training deaths are considered military secrets in China. But with the spread of Internet and cell phone use keeping such things secret has become more difficult. In the past the families of the dead understood that they could be prosecuted for treason if they went public with details and since the state controlled the media that was that. No more. Even if the families remain silent, neighbors and friends of the deceased can spread and discuss the news and this apparently forces the government to announce the deaths. This is to prevent the growth of troublesome conspiracy, but also provide an opportunity to praise exceptional performance and bravery (sometimes when it was stupidity and incompetence that cause the death). This was not an isolated incident and trying to keep the troops from having or using their cellphones is a losing battle.
In democracies parental pressure on the government becomes an issue. South Korea soldiers and their parents pressured the government to allow conscripts to have cell phones with them when they do their two years mandatory service. The military has long banned conscripts from having phones, considering cell phones, especially smart phones (the only kind most South Korean conscripts had soon after these became available) a security risk in the hands of young soldiers. What really annoyed the conscripts was seeing American soldiers of the same age being allowed to have cell phones with them all the time. The largest cell phone manufacturer (Samsung) is a South Korean firm and there have been plenty of stories about Samsung phones being used by the American military on active duty and even in combat. So the South Korean soldiers wonder; what is the problem? Many in the government were inclined to follow the American example.
South Korean commanders have also been paying attention to what their Israeli counterparts are doing to deal with the cell phone problem. The “cell phones for soldiers” policy in Israel has gone though many changes since 2000. Not just cell phones, but also the use of social networks. Back in 2010 Israel prohibited active duty troops from even using social networking sites like Facebook. This included access via PCs or smart phones. This was to prevent information on current or planned operations getting to terrorists. These leaks had occurred several times already by 2010. As a result of that one Israeli soldier was court martialed (and spent ten days in jail) for reporting an upcoming raid on his Facebook page. The soldier had casually mentioned that his unit was going to conduct a raid in the West Bank, to arrest some Palestinians believed planning a terrorist attack on Israel. Another soldier who saw the Facebook posting, alerted the army, and the raid was called off. But the military leadership in most nations eventually recognized that “cell phone discipline” could be as important as what is taught about safely handling weapons. It’s the discipline and training that counts and the officers had to lead the way to make it all work.