Smartphones are on the battlefield. Unofficially, a new generation of digital applications on handheld devices is supporting soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan, and in garrisons around the world. At the tip of the trend are apps like Tactical Nav, an iPhone application designed by a U.S. army captain that displays the military grid reference system in support of indirect fire and navigation.

Officially, defence departments around the world are exploring the idea of pushing more and more communications, networking, information and intelligence to the frontline. In the United States, a smartphone called Joint Battle Command-Platform is currently being tested, while programmers at Signals School are learning to write handheld applications. The U.S. army plans to open an officially sanctioned online apps store later this year.

Helping lead the charge is Rickey Smith, the director of the US Army Capabilities Integration Center. “We have spent [almost two years] working on the benefits side of the cost-benefit equation. Everyone goes to ‘how much does all this cost?’ while really, if I give you a smartphone, how much better are you as a soldier?” he asks. “So in many ways understanding, explaining, evaluating the benefits side of cost-benefit is a tougher challenge. That’s what we’ve been doing with this whole initiative we call Connecting Soldiers to Digital Applications.”

For Richard Cayouette, president of Martello Defence Consultants and a participant in the Canadian Soldier Systems Technology Roadmap workshops, issuing smartphones to soldiers has a lot of positive aspects. “First of all, it’s a great PR shot for the U.S. army, because it tells young recruits that the force really understands them.” Another benefit is that young soldiers will be using smartphones anyway, so it is best to establish control right away. “Next, they will be great in the garrison, to handle all the routine admin that goes on in any organization, but especially in the army.”

The Chief of Mobile Applications Branch at the US Army Signal Center of Excellence, LCol Greg Motes, certainly believes smartphone technology can remove one of military life’s biggest irritants. “We think we can completely revamp how we in-process and out-process people at our military installations,” he says. “With automated systems and smartphones, why should I ever have to clear the Child Development Center if I don’t have children or my children have never been enrolled there?” Motes says if the military can tie smartphone applications to back-end systems, the savings would go a long way to paying for the system.

Security challenge
In many ways, the benefits of a smartphone are its greatest weaknesses: ‘rogue’ apps have the potential to get deep into friendly networks; online connectivity could reveal soldiers’ locations; and, with its huge memory, a captured device could deliver operational information into the hands of an enemy.

Rick Bowes, director of business development at DRS Technologies, notes that “these things are not the most secure devices. Any data that you have on the device is not really encrypted in any robust way. It’s more a commercial level encryption and the same with the signal that is going out. It’s not really a military level of encryption, but that can be overcome.”

Cayouette points out that there are benefits to broadcasting your location, but clearly there are disadvantages as well. “Military radios of course have emission controls or low probability of intercept waveforms that put them into stealth mode.”

What about enemy exploitation of a captured device? Dev Kohli, managing director of IT consultancy Risk Dynamix, says “there are ways to defeat that, using techniques like dual passwords and challenge questions. At its most sophisticated, a capture strategy might trigger a combination of real data, disinfected data and disinformation. It makes device capture a double-edged sword, since it creates doubt about the validity of information from a captured device.”

LCol Motes readily concedes that smartphone deployment raises legitimate problems that are difficult to solve. “We’re approaching them head on in many cases, but there are also areas where we have applications and we have data completely unclassified, releasable to everybody, information that we can make immediate progress on.”

Infrastructure infirmities
“The weakest link in the smartphone chain is the biggest one, and it sits right in the middle,” Kohli says. “Our Internet infrastructure is extremely fragile. We simply don’t have enough redundancy. If you’re going to rely on the public Internet, it has to be triply or quadruply redundant.” And there are many places in the world, Bowes points out, where infrastructure does not exist at all. “In an operation like G8 security and things like that, absolutely, you could have applications there. But I think if you’re going to a place like southern Sudan or some other areas of the world where there is no infrastructure, then you’re going to have some real issues. But ironically, the inverse problem is, those are the areas where you really want that capability.”

Today, Cayouette believes, if you train as you fight, smartphones just don’t work. In field conditions, any military that deployed them as necessary equipment would need to be able to provide its own infrastructure or change how it works. Unlike the U.S., with almost complete cellular coverage, Cayouette said Canada would have to consider peer-to-peer, meshing solutions or transportable base stations to maintain field communications. “There are lots of solutions in that space, all the way back to the Qualcomm Condor.”

Positive control
The value of smartphones is in the applications they run. “Apps are a great way of distributing information,” Kohli says. “Providing end users with a multiplicity of apps enables a certain unpredictability and individuality.”

But how much unpredictability and individuality can a system tolerate? As Bowes asks, “you create an app and who manages that app? What is the configuration management on that app, because presumably you want everybody using the same app, so how is that managed, particularly given that these apps evolve so fast.” Bowes considers the innovation challenge manageable, but resource-constrained countries like Canada may struggle to seize the opportunity.

In the field-testing to date, Smith said soldiers use a ‘star’ system of app rankings, and evaluators are impressed by its effectiveness. “Those stars are really a form of governance, in the sense that users are telling you what’s working and what’s not. In many ways, the people who are ‘digital natives’ if you will, that’s second nature to them and they let you know really quick.”

Smith said there is an aspect of self-government he would like to retain in software development. “Discipline, yes, but not so constrained in how we approach it that it becomes too constrictive or, if you do want to constrict yourself, acknowledge and admit that you’ve self constrained for the right reasons.”

“The army isn’t shying away from this challenge and what we are really doing on many levels [is] trying to harness innovation and get it down to the lowest possible level,” concludes LCol Motes. “There are a lot of official programs going on, but there are also a lot of unofficial movements in trying to get this down, so there is a real sense of a grassroots movement to get apps, to get the capabilities to the soldiers.”