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Putting tablets to the test

DoD evaluating 2,500 mobile devices for security, durability

Sep. 4, 2013 - 03:45AM   |  
By GREG SLABODKIN   |   Comments
A Marine uses an Apple iPad tablet to look up grid coordinates aboard a UH-1Y Venom helicopter in Afghanistan.
A Marine uses an Apple iPad tablet to look up grid coordinates aboard a UH-1Y Venom helicopter in Afghanistan. (Marine Corps)
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With the widespread proliferation of the Apple iPad and other tablets in the commercial world, it was only a matter of time before the Defense Department leveraged the size, flexibility and power of the tablet form factor for mobile military computing. As part of a mobility pilot program led by the Defense Information Systems Agency, the services are evaluating about 2,500 tablet computers across DoD to test the wireless hardware platforms and their ability to operate at the “for official use only” security level.

The goal of the pilot is to ensure that these tablets can operate securely regardless of the environment. The envisioned end state is enterprise-level secure classified and protected unclassified mobile solutions that support the war fighter globally.

“DISA signed on to lead the mobility pilot, which was to look at using tablets in an ‘official use only,’ ‘sensitive’ and ultimately the ‘classified’ environment, since they were the ones responsible for verifying and validating that the operating systems were secure,” said Mike McCarthy, director of operations for the Brigade Modernization Command-Mission Command Complex at Fort Bliss, Texas.

The Brigade Modernization Command has incorporated the tablets into Network Integration Evaluations being conducted semiannually at Fort Bliss. During the most recent NIE, about 150 mobile devices were used by the opposing forces.

“Soldiers are telling us that they like the mobile devices. Particularly in the field, they like the smaller 7-inch tablets,” said McCarthy, project lead for the Army's Connecting Soldiers to Digital Applications (CSDA) project, an effort to bring smartphone/hand-held devices to soldiers across the service through security initiatives being worked to create a safe and secure operating environment for all mobile device users.

He is personally using an Android-based Samsung tablet and an iOS-based iPad that are being evaluated as part of the DISA pilot. Apple’s iPad Mini is also being run through its paces.

“We started the mobility pilot last October with about 200 tablets, a combination of iPads and Samsung Galaxy Android tablets, trying some different approaches for securing them,” McCarthy said. “That was expanded this year. Just in the Army alone, we’ve added 1,500 additional devices as part of the pilot.”

The original plan was to issue up to 5,000 tablets this fiscal year as part of the pilot, but with sequestration and budget constraints, the rollout had to be scaled back to 2,500 devices, of which approximately 1,700 tablets belong to the Army’s CSDA project. The military services are partners with DISA on the unclassified portion of the pilot, while the National Security Agency is a partner on the classified side.

“It really gave us some great insights on things that worked and things that we need to continue to look at,” McCarthy said. “As we move forward, we’ve got Windows 8 tablets. There are five [Hewlett-Packard] tablets that are not in production yet that are currently with DISA and the NSA to have their operating systems checked to make sure there are no vulnerabilities that can’t be mitigated with some kind of measure.”

However, Google’s Android mobile operating system is of particular interest. Of the operating systems available on tablets, Android is the furthest along in terms of security. According to McCarthy, Android was certified 14 months before Apple’s iOS. Common Access Card readers on all of the devices are required to access secure information such as encrypted email.

“The iPad is locked down probably a little bit more than the Android, and that’s only because we haven’t had as much experience dealing with the Apple iOS environment,” he said. “So, we took some extra precautions. As we get more comfortable, I think we’ll see a loosening of some of the [Security Technical Implementation Guides] that are on there so we can take full advantage of the iPad.”


In terms of the other military services, McCarthy said the Air Force and Marine Corps are using tablets in cockpits. For example, Air Mobility Command has purchased more than 16,000 Apple iPad 3 tablets to serve as an “electronic flight bag” (EFB) for aircrews, replacing paper maps, navigation charts and flight manuals.

“The decision was made to look at many different devices as part of a broad market study,” said Jeff Shields, technology advancement branch chief in AMC’s Directorate of Communications at Scott Air Force Base, Ill. “It makes more sense to have a tablet. It’s much lighter, portable, and the user experience is much better because it’s easier to use with faster access to the documents in the tablet format.”

Pilots, navigators, engineers, loadmasters, boom operators, and flight nurses, among other aircrew members, have been issued iPad 3 tablets by AMC under the EFB program. AMC’s fleet of airlifters includes large platforms including C-17, C-5 and C-130 aircraft with global missions for transporting equipment and personnel, as well as such aerial refueling aircraft as the KC-135. However, the iPad 3s were too big for the cockpits of AMC’s fleet of C-21 aircraft, which are the military version of the commercial business-class Learjet. So, the 375th Air Mobility Wing at Scott conducted a trial of the iPad Mini and found it to be more suitable for its needs. In the process, the unit found that the tablets could replace nearly 50 pounds of paper documents that must be tossed out every two months as maps and manuals are continuously updated.

“The move to digital data is both cost-effective and much more efficient for operators,” said Air Force Maj. Brian Moritz, the EFB program manager.

When it comes to security, Shields said that the EFBs are “not the iPads that your kids are using.” The tablets are locked down to ensure that the data is safe and that they are not “broadcasting,” he said, with the iPads linked to a highly secure computer network to keep out hackers and other “bad actors.”


However, Brad Kersavage, Panasonic’s national sales manager for Air Force and DoD, doesn’t believe iPads would survive in the military’s harsh operational settings. Kersavage, who sells Panasonic rugged laptops and tablets, argues that iPads do not have the level of ruggedization that war fighters need in the field.

“If you take an iPad outside on a flight line, for instance, it’s not a sustainable piece of IT equipment,” he said.

“There certainly are areas where the iPads are acceptable for use, and are being used in that way partly because of the cost-effectiveness of those products. But there are other mission-critical implementations of computers and displays which don’t allow for a compromise in either computing performance, durability or ruggedness,” said Bill Guyan, vice president of strategy for DRS Network & Imaging Systems, which was awarded a contract worth $455 million in June by the Army for the production of the Mounted Family of Computer Systems, including rugged tablets, that will be installed in ground vehicles.

Nevertheless, McCarthy insists that out in the field, an OtterBox tablet case works well in protecting an iPad against physical damage. “One of the things we’ve found is that these devices are much more durable than a lot of people think they are,” he said. “Out of the 1,700 devices that we have here, I’ve only had three of them that were physically demolished. One got dropped on a carpeted floor and broke into three pieces. Another one got run over by a 12-ton [mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicle]. And, then, a couple of months ago, there was one that was in theater that got shot by an AK-47 round.”


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