Phone home

How many of you are Luddites like me that don’t have a smart phone? I strongly suspect I’m in a real minority. Smart phones are such an integral part of so many of our lives that folks feel like they are missing a limb if they don’t have theirs with them.

In fact, there’s a long article this morning in the Army Times that says the Army is looking at issuing each soldier a smart phone.

FORT GORDON, Ga. — The Army wants to issue every soldier an iPhone or Android cell phone — it could be a soldier’s choice.

And to top it off, the Army wants to pay your monthly phone bill.

To most soldiers, it sounds almost too good to be true, but it’s real, said Lt. Gen. Michael Vane, director of the Army Capabilities Integration Center. He said the Army would issue these smart phones just like any other piece of equipment a soldier receives.

Woohoo! But wait, there’s more. The article talks a lot about how troops in garrison stateside are already using smart phones, but I’m more interested in the warfighter applications that are just over the horizon.

A unit deployed to Afghanistan in November with the phones loaded with Raytheon’s Advanced Tactical System to test the software, said Bigham, of Raytheon. The company expects to receive feedback in December.

Companies have also built apps that display video from unmanned aerial vehicles overhead, read words spoken in English into any language the soldier chooses, or — with the so-called “augmented reality” app called Soldier Eyes — let soldiers see information overlaid on what their smart-phone’s camera sees.

“If another unit knows of IEDs, that info can be downloaded directly onto the cell phone,” said Staff Sgt. Isaiah Marquez, an infantry squad leader with the Army Evaluation Task Force who tested the app. “Then the other unit can tell exactly where the IED is supposed to be by looking through the camera on the phone. As you pan around, it will show you where they are.”

I especially like the “Soldier’s Eyes” idea. If nothing else, it can be a very quick and handy way to navigate from checkpoint to checkpoint on a patrol route. Currently, night land navigation, even with a GPS system, is challenging. But if you have your navigation checkpoints input into your phone, and quickly holding it up shows you the direction and distance  to the next checkpoint, it will be much easier.

To be sure, there are a lot of challenges ahead that will have to be addressed before this tool can be truly another arrow in the warrior’s quiver. Networking issues are nothing to sneeze at, but more  importantly, how do you keep this data secure? In the age of WikiLeaks, we’ve seen how badly compromised communications can hurt our forces. In addition, what seems like a simple idea can quickly become a bloated monstrosity. As my guest author and commo expert Craig Swain had to say when I emailed him:

The problem is that being an “Army” thing, something simple will become something complex. Starts out as, “just get a smart phone.” Then the intel people say, “but make it secure.” Then the chemical corps says, “it must have a bio/chem protective housing, CARC paint, and EMP hardening.” The ordnance rep will demand that the phone survive -50 degree temps concurrent with a fall from the Sears Tower. The Infantry-Armor rep will insist the interface be so intuitive that “a caveman can use it.” And finally the Signal corps will shoot themselves and add in the requirement to interface with all legacy systems in the network, to include the WANG wordprocessor.
In the end, the device will weigh 200 pounds and have a range of 90 feet. Everything about the device will be classed as “durable/recoverable,” requiring a hand receipt at least ten pages long. And the overlays you think are great will be an additional issue item, that is only obtained through class IX using some obscure NSN.
My cynicism knows no bounds.

I’m not quite as cynical as him, but I know what he means here.

What about you guys? What “killer” apps would you like to take to war?

6 thoughts on “Phone home”

  1. This former systems manager-analyst would LOVE to be part of the team considering feasibility. Information is power and I want US to win battles and have the biggest ‘stick’ in peace time. Don’t know what apps are needed since I’m no soldier. But I’d be most concerned about security.

    Suggest that needs of the mission and functionality remain the driving force (this ain’t no friggin toy… well maybe it is if you out-rank sumbunny). AND, if there is no benefit to the mission or assigned tasks that it not be issued.

    This might seem like a creepy question. Sorry. Dog owner. Know about micro-chip-IDs. Would security issues be better controlled for smart phones if they are only operable when they are able to hand-shake with a soldier’s surgically planted micro-chip-ID?

  2. Shades of Starship Troopers.
    The concern of every group getting involved and adding their pee to the mix so it tastes good to them is, I think, valid. That is one of the areas of government that needs serious work – not letting everyone get involved. To me the classic example is Operation Eagle Claw (Rice Bowl) were it seems that everyone was give some role to play, much to the detriment of the operation. What should have been a fairly quick and simple strike to get people out turned into a major inter-arm exercise.

    1. The other example was the Son Tay prison raid, which was dragged out so long that by the time they got around to launching it, the prisoners had been moved.

      I’m not trying to minimize the challenges here. There ARE a lot of technical and doctrinal and security issues that need to be addressed. But your point (and Craig’s) are truly valid.

    2. I’m not trying to suggest that there may not be valid issues, but there needs to be a balance. You can make something everything-proof, but unusable, or you can define the job you want something to do, and then make it as simple as possible and still work. This seems like a tool that most of the young people in service now would be familiar with, and with a few software additions, becomes something VERY useful. Is it perfect? No. As Cathy pointed out, there should be some way to make sure that only The Good Guys can use the system. But even without that, for now it seems worth getting out.

  3. I’d just like to note, with a big stupid grin on my face, at how the modern American soldier’s tools and those of FPS heroes like the Master Chief are rapidly approaching parity.

    I look forward to the day where we have snarky, yet helpful, smart AIs feeding tactical and strategic intelligence to shielded power armor-wearing US Army Infantry.

  4. The screens on those are bright. Even the screen of my non-smart phone is bright. I can’t see them being used when light discipline is in force. They would certainly need a mute button of some kind as well.

    I well remember the trooper in my OCS class who forgot he had set the alarm in his watch and it went off when the ompany TAC was haranging the class. I can just see one of the things yelling about a text message just received when you are about to jump that sentry from behind 🙁

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