Army gears up for new round in battle of the smart phones

As the Army prepares for its fourth Network Integration Evaluation – a twice-yearly event for operational testing of new tech capabilities – there has been a new influx of mobile devices to consider for a place on the battlefield.

With focus shifting from the network to the technologies and services that use it, in addition to a nearly insatiable demand for mobile access, the Army has to find the right balance between security, requirements and the demand for new devices, according to one official.

“Old technology isn’t necessarily obsolete…it doesn’t mean that every time new technology comes out, we have to replace it,” said Mike McCarthy, operations director of the Army’s Brigade Modernization Command’s Mission Command Complex. “But we do need a strategy that allows us to take advantage of integrating the best technology and the best solutions we can afford at the time, so that we increase the capabilities of our soldiers. It’s not just about buying shiny bright things to hang on their vest like a Christmas tree.”

McCarthy, speaking Sept. 18 with FCW on the sidelines of the Defense Systems Summit in Arlington, Va., said the focus is more on security and capabilities, and less on whether the device is an iPhone, Android, Blackberry or other brand.

“We’re trying to maintain our neutrality on devices and operating systems so that we can take advantage of this exponentially changing environment. Who could have predicted five years ago that Android would be as mature as it is now?” McCarthy said.

There are no slam-dunks, though. There have been ongoing struggles with proprietary technology and Defense Department security standards – Apple being one of the most prominent – and the Army is evaluating options, including RIM and Windows devices, that previously didn’t fit the requirements but are now contenders.

"When I first started, everyone said ‘Oh, iPad is the answer,’ but what we’ve found is that from a security standpoint, Android has leapt a great distance ahead of iOS. Who can tell me five years from now what the best operating system, best model or best device will be?” McCarthy said. “It’s not a pick-one-and-stick-with-it-for 25-years; it’s a continuing process.”

The desire for iPhones everywhere, including on the battlefield, is undeniable. At a Sept. 13 AFCEA event, Rear Adm. David Simpson, vice director at DISA – the agency taking the lead on a number of DOD mobile efforts – expressed high hopes for the new iPhone 5.

“My primary NIPRNet mobility device is an iPhone 4, so I’m anxious to see the 5,” Simpson said. “We do expect that when iPhone 5 comes out we will be integrating that into our capabilities out of the box and working the security.”

McCarthy confirmed that Army negotiations with Apple are ongoing as they work through concerns over proprietary access that have slowed the iPhone’s progress toward the battlefield. He also said iPhone 4 is being tested out first, and he expects that eventually iPhone 5 will follow suit.

“If it’s successful, that gives us the ability to connect to [for official use only], dot-mil and dot-gov levels of information. We’re still not doing classified on it – we’ve still got a lot of work to do there,” McCarthy said. “Apple has not kept up with the progress that Android has in terms of getting us to that level. To their credit, Apple has made a significant effort in the last year to meet the requirements for the Army – I won’t speak for all of DOD. I think they’re close.”

Still, as can be expected, it’s security rather than the allure of cutting-edge gadgets that officials are putting first.

“Clearly, in the environment we’re in, mobility is important. In my mind security is the first thing. The data is more important than walking around with [a certain] device,” Doug Wiltsie, Army program executive officer-enterprise information systems, said at the Sept. 13 event. “We have to put the priorities in the right place.”

According to McCarthy, it can’t happen soon enough. With a generation of young troops on the front lines accustomed to near-constant smart phone access, and an increasingly sophisticated enemy, the security threat is constant and growing.

“It became very apparent to Army leadership that in theater soldiers were, out of their own pocket, buying commercial cell phones and running them on the cellular infrastructure in the countries,” McCarthy said. “We haven’t had big problems with things happening, but we want to make sure…that in the future we don’t allow someone the opportunity to [exploit] that. We don’t want soldiers worrying about their loved ones because a family portrait somehow made it into the wrong hands.”

About the Author

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

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