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The elevation of mobile

Smartphones and tablets graduate from pilot programs to military mainstays

May. 7, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
By AMBER CORRIN   |   Comments
The Army recently purchased about 7,000 Android-based Samsung devices to be integrated into soldiers' situational awareness system outfits.
The Army recently purchased about 7,000 Android-based Samsung devices to be integrated into soldiers' situational awareness system outfits. (Claire Schwerin)

In airplane cockpits, on the battlefield, in the back of Ospreys and other helicopters: Mobile devices are everywhere in the military.

The Defense Department has been testing smartphones and tablets for years now, at least as far back as 2010 when the Army first started exploring tablet use. A year later, the Air Force launched its electronic flight bag program, and in 2012 Pentagon leaders released DoD’s first mobile strategy. In between, dozens of mobile pilot programs have put devices in troops’ hands across the globe.

Today, more formal policies for mobility continue to take shape at DoD. The Defense Information Systems Agency currently is onboarding military agency users for its mobile device management (MDM) program, and mobile devices are saving the Pentagon time, money, energy and effort — in addition to arming service members with technology critical to the fight.

“We’re seeing these devices and the different solutions we have creeping into other programs of record, and people are realizing that there is significant value in this technology,” said Michael McCarthy, director of operations and program manager at Army Brigade Modernization Command. “It saves a tremendous amount of developmental power; it also expedites acquisition processes and timeline significantly by doing this. We’re starting to see devices show up in places we never anticipated they’d show up.”

Related: See how the Marine Corps use mobile devices in crisis-response missions .

One of those places is the Army’s Nett Warrior program, where smartphones are being integrated into the situational awareness system that outfits soldiers with navigation and information-sharing capabilities. In February, the Army purchased about 7,000 Android-based Samsung devices to be mounted on the chests of dismounted soldiers. The devices communicate via signals routed through the USB connection on troops’ hip-mounted rifleman radios.

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“In the early days of the program we suggested they look at an Android device; we offered suggestions on things we had great success with. Initially there was some pushback — ‘we have to develop our own display unit.’ When that fell apart they said, ‘maybe there is something there,’ ” McCarthy said. “Now the Samsung is what’s being fielded — five or six brigades’ worth of Nett Warrior fielded within the last 18 months. As one model of phone is no longer available, we replace it with another model. That’s an original tenet — the solution doesn’t have to have one specific device or operating system, so we can leverage the best that’s out there.”

Tablets also are playing a role for the newest Army members. Army recruiters throughout the country are in the process of receiving tablets to assist in their work, and Army students are getting tablets in the classroom.

“At Army Recruiting Command, we’re putting just short of 10,000 devices into the hands of recruiters across the Army. The Army War College is issuing students tablets for course work,” McCarthy said. “It just continues to expand. We have gotten different approvals to use devices so that we have options besides just BlackBerry.”

Elsewhere in the Army, soldiers are reaping the benefits of mobile devices that were test run at the service’s biannual Network Integration Evaluation. The Army is deploying NIE-approved 4G smartphones into the field through several programs, McCarthy said, and officials routinely are looking for new security measures — both in existing devices, those yet to come and the operating environments that will manage both.

“We continue to look for new solutions, particularly with regard to how we provide that secure environment for mobile devices,” he said. “There are folks out there who will always try to exploit new vulnerabilities as they’re found. So it’s a matter of identifying them, finding solutions and then keep going back and re-looking to see if new there are new vulnerabilities identified or exploits coming through.”

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DISA is hoping to tackle security issues through its MDM program, in which one of its first customers is the Air Force’s Air Mobility Command. DISA and AMC are overseeing the continued and growing rollout of the electronic flight bag (EFB), which is a tablet-based application that relieves pilots of carrying bags of paper-based flight plans that can weigh as much as 70 pounds.

“We are rolling out new and innovative applications to support evolving war-fighter requirements framework for management of applications to expand the capabilities available to users,” a DISA spokesperson said. “A prime example is our work with Air Mobility Command to service large mission needs that have not been connected to the network in the past. AMC is deploying more than 18,000 devices in their electronic flight bag program.”

In addition to no longer weighing down airmen with binders of flight plans, the effort also saves the department money on printing, manpower and even fuel costs run up by the paper-heavy processes required to produce and manage distribution.

“The flight bag is where they keep their instructions, their flight plans, and they were all paper bound. So what we did with the EFB, the electronic part, is make it a mobile device to carry those documents,” DISA’s Col. James Starling told DoD’s Armed with Science blog in April. “Imagine you have thousands of these [Air Force instructions] that now need a current update or a plan. When it’s an update, we just send the update electronically, and they have it on their iPad.”

Airmen are not the only ones taking their mobile devices to the skies. The Marine Corps is working on plans to equip Marines with tablets and smartphones in a bid to improve on-the-ground situational awareness — before they actually even hit the ground. According to Brig. Gen. Kevin Nally, Marine Corps CIO, work is underway in the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory to improve operational preparations.

“In the past we’ve always had a problem putting Marines on the helicopter or Osprey and flying into an objective area — normally, in the past, what happens is the Marines are in the back and go to sleep. When you land, you get out and assess the situation,” Nally said. “Now what we’re experimenting with is giving the Marines tablets and smartphone-type devices while they’re aboard the helo or Osprey. The Joint Strike Fighter lays the target, acquires the information and feeds that back to the Osprey or the helicopter, then it goes straight to the smartphone or tablet. So instead of sleeping, they’re assessing the target area; they’ve got pictures of the target objective, and their situational awareness when they exit the aircraft is much higher as compared to looking around and trying to assess the situation.”

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