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Combat Smartphone

U.S. Army Pushes Tech for Soldiers Despite Security Concerns

May. 16, 2011 - 03:45AM   |  
By MICHAEL HOFFMAN   |   Comments
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The thought of U.S. soldiers holding an iPhone or Android cellphone on an Afghan mountainside, watching real-time UAV video feeds or maps distinguishing friend from foe, excites some generals but worries others.

The potential is intoxicating. Lt. Gen. Michael Vane, head of the Army Capabilities Integration Center, has already declared he wants "a smartphone for every soldier."

An Army worried about weighing soldiers down could hand a soldier a smartphone that can fit in his pocket, yet provide all the intelligence he needs to operate.

The concern is the potential for damage if that intelligence falls into the wrong hands. What happens if a smartphone is taken from a soldier, or the data link connecting the phone to headquarters is intercepted? Does the risk validate the reward?

Officials in the defense industry and the Army say yes. Operational security is an ancient concern. Many in the defense industry said it began the moments militaries brought maps onto the battlefield.

However, it's not a concern that should paralyze the growing momentum toward the widespread distribution of smartphones for U.S. troops, said Lt. Col. Greg Motes, the Army's Mobile Applications Branch chief. Plenty of questions remain, though.

"What will a classified smartphone look like? How do we certify and clear applications on the backside? What data should be allowed to be stored on the phones? Is there hardware encryption? What does the authentication require?" Motes asked.

His branch continues to tackle these questions as the Army comes to grips with the many security issues attached to this rapidly evolving technology.

The Army isn't the first organization to grapple with phone security - just a different sort. CEOs have data encrypted into their phones. Banks have launched mobile browsers to allow customers to execute banking transactions right from their phones.

"People say if they can do all their banking transactions on a phone, then why can't I use a service app? A task that might be mundane as a training app," Motes said.

Leveraging commercial encryption on mobile phones is a challenge. The U.S. National Security Agency is responsible for classifying cellphones, such as the one the president uses. However, the NSA's standards of security are costly and could put the brakes on a widespread issue of such phones, defense industry and Army experts said.

The defense industry has made major investments to protect information on smartphones. Apple has even started the process with NSA to accredit its mobile systems to hold classified information.

Many of the smartphone concerns expressed by senior Army leaders have been addressed by the defense industry. For example, fears of lost phones falling into the wrong hands, said Marc Bigham, a vice president at Raytheon Intelligence and Information Systems.

"If a phone is lost, it's very easy to zero out all the information on the phone when it's reported," he said.

Even if the lost phone is not reported, Army officials can protect information stored inside the phone or transmitted from it with different encryption algorithms, Bigham said.

Retired Maj. Gen. Dennis Moran, the Army's former director of information operations, networks and space, who now works for Harris Corp., said protecting information transmitted from phones is simple. The cellphones will rely on much the same infrastructure that Army radios use to transmit signals.

Companies such as Lockheed Martin and Raytheon are trying to deliver mobile 4G wireless networks to the war zone. Lockheed's MONAX network can provide a 4G hot spot over 3,000 square kilometers. Raytheon has developed its Advanced Tactical System.

Each of these systems has security built in. Lockheed's system uses Suite B encryption, said Patrick Opet, a lead engineer on the MONAX program.

Security is a focus from the start. Engineers such as Steve Mazza, Ron Szymanski and John Tyler Barton at the Army's Communications-Electronics Research, Development and Engineering Center must consider how to protect information while also developing some of the Army's cutting-edge smartphone software and applications.

"Our challenge is to demonstrate what we can in the art of the possible, and at the same time, maintain a reasonable implementation of the best practices prescribed to us by those who know better when it comes to security," Mazza said.

Barton traveled to Fort Bragg, N.C., in February and March, where he worked with 82nd Airborne Division soldiers who used hand-held devices in exercises involving air assaults and tracking vehicles in the dark.

Other soldiers haven't waited to bring their smartphones on deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan. Some have taken their own phone and used applications like BulletFlight and iSnipe, which help shooters estimate a bullet's trajectory.

Smartphones are heading to combat. The question is when, and with what type of security and infrastructure supporting them, Motes said.

Defense industry officials said too many top military leaders support the move for it not to happen.

"Let's get the Army out in front of this," Vane said.

During a speech this spring at the National Space Symposium, Marine Corps Gen. James Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, held up an iPad and said that sort of technology needs to reach the war fighter faster. He told the audience the U.S. military needs to find ways to get commercial technology into the hands of service members faster.

"Let me take the risk. Let the war fighter decide the risk, not some bureaucrat," Cartwright said.

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