February 28, 2012

Rise of the iSoldier: smart communication in battle

Richard de Silva, Defence IQ
February 2012

Last year, Defence IQ reported on the use of Apple iPads within the British School of Artillery as a way to enhance training. In this instance, a bespoke app was created to familiarise soldiers with terminology and procedures in a more hands-on fashion, designed to speed up their grasp of operations before deploying to Afghanistan.

In recent months, the US Army has also been making leaps and bounds into the incorporation of smart technology into the wider battlefield network, under what has been called “an accelerated approval process.”

Speaking ahead of his address at the 2012 Tactical Communications event in London this April, Michael McCarthy, director of operations for the Army’s Brigade Modernization Command Mission Command Complex (MCC), said that the plan was to give troops the right phones for the right reasons.The US Army is just one of the armed forces investing heavily into the race to equip troops with smart phones. “It’s not just to give them another shiny thing to hang on their equipment carriers,” McCarthy explained.

Lieutenant General Michael Vane, director of the US Army Training and Doctrine Command’s (TRADOC) Capabilities Integration Center, announced that analysis is underway for all soldiers in theatre to eventually be provided a smart phone, saying “we can figure out the smart cost benefit way of doing this, it probably makes sense in the long run”.

A few of these are already available, with 40 touch screen phones having been provided to frontline troops last year, but considering the investment the Army has made into developing its own ‘App Store’, the continued run-on makes sense.
As of last year, this online marketplace was offering 17 apps for Android phones and 16 for iPhones, ranging in use from the ‘Chinese Mandarin Civil Affairs Phrasebook’ to the ‘MWR (Morale, Welfare and Recreation) Assets Locator’, and was set to launch by early 2012.
With ongoing input from DARPA, newer apps are expected to provide such things as instant translation of foreign languages, GPS mapping and – more interestingly – an experimental UAV remote-control that allows soldiers to float a metal detector over the terrain in front of them at the slide of a thumb, in what is another example of serious counter-IED investment.

One generation’s gift to the next

Government employees are also picking up on the utility of smart phones as an all-in-one, with US officials and UK members of parliament being the latest to push the request through for the technology to be made standard issue.
Meanwhile, tablet computers for the provision of instant communication, mapping, and the full range of network enabled capabilities between units are also verified additions to many of the ongoing future soldier programmes across the world, including India’s F-INSAS, and France’s F√ČLIN.

Key to the development of these apps is of course the feedback from soldiers on the frontline, many of whom are already savvy when it comes to picking up and mastering new technology, given the huge emergence of our digital world.

The feedback helps all aspects of the USA’s own future soldier programme, and in particular its ‘Nett Warrior’ branch, designed to provide accurate situational awareness to the dismounted leader, and which is aimed to decrease blue-on-blue incidents as much as increase successful and precise offensives.

This programme is based largely on app-based technology, and is implemented through those existing 40 devices in the field via Raytheon’s MAINGATE solution, turning data channels into Internet Protocol (IP).

The defence giant has also run demonstrations on in-development solution to transferring simultaneous data, voice and live video over a 3G network between tactical radio and commercial smart phones.

The cost of eventually providing all soldiers with smart comms has been estimated at $1billion per annum, and cost efficiency may be difficult to fully measure if dreams of outfitting all feet on the ground.

McCarthy insisted that despite the benefits, it would not be right to spend “$2,500 to ruggedize a $200 phone.”

Standing in the way
The move to military smart technology is of course aimed at simplification above all else, but the road to establishing this for soldiers is not without its difficulties.
Providing energy for these devices always presents a challenge, so incorporating mobile power sources within the soldier’s equipment is a must for the future electricity-reliant battle space, with many believing the best way to go in terms of smart technology is through solar energy panels.

The issue of regulated bandwidth remains more problematic, requiring mobile wi-fi hubs to provide coverage to remote areas, which may even include “airborne cell towers” being deployed in helicopters. Lack of signal, as plagues standard civilian networks, would not be tolerated in the heat of action.

Most significantly, cast-iron encryption seems to have been the primary delay in getting this kit out to troops – that is, until deals in recent months between the military and the private sector.

It has not be lost on infantry commanders that cyber defence must be jointly improved if troops are to be integrated with the digital space while engaged in operations, but it is only now that a solution seems to have been formed.
Google has now been chosen to develop networks secure enough to transmit high-classification communications for those deployed in theatre, and eventually, federal agencies on home soil will also benefit. The beefed up Android software will grace over a hundred more smart devices being shipped to the Army next month.
According to reports, the open source approach Google takes to publishing its code won over the Army’s decision-makers, whereas Apple insisted on protecting its intellectual property to a degree that made it unworkable for this type of development.

Despite this, Apple still has a part to play in the future battlefields, as General Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, acknowledged that he uses a disconnected iPad to peruse classified cables.

For now, at least, DARPA is prioritising its smart phone project, and the flexibility of the Google operating system could in theory allow for third parties to strengthen and debug any problems with the military-grade software.

McCarthy and other managers of military digital communications programmes for international defence forces will be gathering at Tactical Communications 2012, taking place at the Mayfair Conference Centre, London, UK, between April 23 - 25.
Event information is available at www.TacticalCommunicationsEvent.com, or by emailing defence@iqpc.co.uk, or phoning +44 (0) 20 7368 9300.
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