Army expanding, experimenting with tablets

The Army knows what its soldiers want for the field: the same handheld technologies they use at home. Now that demand is being met as the Army looks beyond smart phones and explores the best ways tablet computers can be used on base, in the classroom and in combat.

According to Michael McCarthy, operations director of the Army’s Brigade Modernization Command’s Mission Command Complex, testing of the new technologies began about two years ago under the Connecting Soldiers to Digital Applications project, and was initially focused on smart phones before leadership recognized the need for tablets.

The experimental use of tablets started in Army classrooms, where it quickly proved helpful for soldiers ranging from young junior enlisted to mid-grade captains to soldiers in advanced training, McCarthy said.

“We found there was a tremendous value in putting course material on these 10-inch tablets. Soldiers are familiar with the technology, and it’s more effective than ‘death by PowerPoint,’” he said, adding that with the use of tablets there was a 10 percent increase in average scores and a 14 percent increase in grade point averages.

Now tablets are being used for training, administrative purposes, situational awareness in the tactical environment and location ttracking, among other uses, McCarthy noted.

For use in operational environments, a 7-inch tablet fitted with a ruggedized case proved to be a better fit, McCarthy said. Members of leadership like the tablets for use in briefs and the easy access to maps, and those in the medical community were able to quickly access volumes of data, including the Physician's Desk Reference, he said.

The Army is testing out a variety of types and brands, but is avoiding committing to just one provider.

“We’re trying to stay as device-agnostic as we can. We don’t want to get wedded to one device or operating system because of the velocity of change in technology,” said McCarthy. The iPad, Dell Streak, Samsung Galaxy and tablets made by HP, Entourage, Blackberry and Fujitsu, among others, have all been part of the testing. The tablets are first tested in a lab then put into the hands of staff and soldiers in as realistic an environment as possible, he said.

Testing is still ongoing, with a new pilot being developed to use tablets to help train and prepare deploying units – and those tablets will be headed for the theater, McCarthy said.

According to a post on the CIO/G-6 blog from Sgt. Maj. Kevin McCrary, CIO/G-6 senior enlisted adviser, some tablets are already available through the Army’s Computer Hardware, Enterprise Software and Solutions catalog.

McCarthy said the Army is working to address the inherent security issues in conjunction with the National Security Agency, which is testing hardened operating systems, including development of a hardened Android. There’s also being work done on the iPad, but that is “still several months behind,” he said. Nonetheless, the plan is for tablets to eventually be used on both the NIPR and SIPR classified networks.

For now, the pilot programs that are done or underway are funded by the various Army agencies involved in the testing, McCarthy said. But in the future it will be up to Army leadership to allocate money to the use of tablets if they’re going to go forward with their use.

“It will be up to the Army staff to solve that issue – big Army has to do that,” McCarthy said.

But he remains confident and hopeful.

“We’ve discovered tremendous insight in the value of tablets,” he said. “The potential is limitless.”

About the Author

Amber Corrin is a former staff writer for FCW and Defense Systems.

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