Soldiers use handheld devices to exchange tactical information during the Network Integration Evaluation 13.2, a recent technology demonstration exercise at Fort Bliss, Texas. ()
On paper and in practice, the U.S. military is moving ahead with determination in its efforts to bring mobile technology into its workforce and onto the battlefield.
A 2012 Defense Department strategy document laid out a plan for developing mobile standards, acquiring a mobile device management system and training mobile device users. In February 2013, the department followed up with a Commercial Mobile Device Implementation Plan for putting commercial mobile devices in play among the department’s 600,000 users.
That’s how it looks on paper, and reality backs it up. The Army, for instance, had between 20,000 and 25,000 mobile devices in use in 2013, said Michael McCarthy, director of operations/program manager for the Brigade Modernization Command-Mission Command Complex at Fort Bliss, Texas.
With pilot projects unfolding throughout the military branches, DoD appears to be on track in its efforts to make smartphones and tablets a reality. Still, challenges remain.
Current mobility efforts span a wide range of potential uses. Take, for instance, the U.S. Navy’s LTE (Long Term Evolution) pilot project on two amphibious ships, Kearsarge and San Antonio, which aims to establish a secure 4G network to allow sharing of voice, text and video between the ships. Led by Reston, Va.-based Oceus Networks, the project has equipped the ships with a microwave-based wireless wide-area network to bolster existing satellite-based communications. The wireless connections help personnel to use smartphones in the critical areas of visit, board, search and seizure missions.
Secure mobility company Good Technology, based in Sunnyvale, Calif., has helped the Army stand up a test of mobile email access within the Defense Information Systems Agency system. The system, an early prototype of potential enterprise email mobility, started with 100 users and eventually ramped up to some 2,000 users from across the Defense Department, said Jeffrey Ait, director of public-sector business at Good Technology.
There’s a standard assumption among some that military-grade wireless management must be hardened on the back end and secured beyond the norm. Some of the pilot projects underway aim to show that this is not necessarily true. The Marine Corps, for instance, has efforts in play intended to show that mobility can be achieved with off-the-shelf products running the infrastructure elements, thus saving the military the expense of developing in-house solutions.
“The intent for the beta is to prove that we can use a carrier’s management system on the devices and securely pass data in transit,” said Rob Anderson, chief of the Marine Corps’ vision and strategy division.
The pilot program includes 20 Android devices plugged into commercial carriers’ infrastructures, with carriers providing security and encryption.
“We believe we can save a considerable amount of money by leveraging a carrier’s solution rather than having to keep up with the mobile device game every time new devices and new systems come out,” Anderson said. If successful, the project will move from pilot phase into a larger beta test in May.
The Army, meanwhile, is looking to demonstrate convenience as a major differentiator in favor of mobile devices. McCarthy points to the Army War College as an example. The introduction of iPads there has reduced 150 pounds of textbooks to just a few ounces. Acceptance rates at first ran at about 22 percent and lately have risen to more than 75 percent, as mobility has increasingly become the norm in the commercial world.
Convenience extends beyond the classroom to operations in the field, with mobile versions of repair manuals allowing for easy portability and instant updates. Such tools may even save lives. With a mobile medical evacuation app, for instance, the 15 minutes it used to take to fill out forms in a medical emergency have been reduced to less than three minutes, McCarthy said.
Hurdles to surmount
Despite these varied successes, the move to mobility has not been without its challenges. As with the wide-scale adoption of any new technology, there are hurdles that must be overcome. In the military, those begin, not surprisingly, with questions of security.
While commercial vendors are eager to proclaim that the worst of the potential security issues inherent to mobility have been tackled, and efforts like the Marine Corps pilot program willing to put such claims to the test, some outside analysts are less sanguine. Take, for example, the issue of user authentication. Given the compact and easily portable nature of these devices, how can anyone be sure that the user is the person he or she claims to be?
“You have to make sure the right people and the right devices are actually being authenticated, and there is not yet a cohesion around how that is going to be done,” said Rob Frazzini, principal at Deloitte Consulting and leader of Deloitte Digital for Federal.
A related concern is what happens when a device is lost. There needs to be a way to remotely lock down or erase data when phones and tablets go missing.
Some issues are less about software and more about form factor. If soldiers have to take off their gloves to work on a touch screen, that’s both impractical and potentially dangerous. McCarthy says a solution lies in $15 off-the-shelf gloves that are just a bit thinner. Another critical device management issue for military uses: Phones break, sometimes pretty easily. McCarthy priced combat-hardened devices at $2,500 apiece. Then he tried using a screen cover and a silicon case for $20 and lost only three phones and an iPad in the course of a four-year trial, “and that is putting them through some really tough things,” he said.
Such cost considerations have been a stumbling block in mobile adoption. “With the latest budget issues, there hasn’t been a line item for mobile devices, so funding for this has been a huge issues across the federal government,” Ait said. “It has slowed the process down.”
Some say an even more significant roadblock has been the military’s culture of resistance to change.
Slow to change
By its very nature, the defense community is a conservative body, especially when introducing new technologies that have the perceived potential for broadcasting sensitive information in all-too-public ways.
“They are programmed to be risk averse. They want everything documented down to the most minute level of detail,” Frazzini said. As a result, the wheels may grind slowly.
“The biggest issue we face is around the approval process. For mobility to work, you have to have devices approved, you have to have platforms approved, you have to have applications approved,” Ait said. “Everyone is still trying to come up to speed on how that process works.”
Nonetheless, in its public statements at least, the military says it is moving at full speed toward a new technology paradigm that could radically change the nature of defense.
A range of factors is driving the need for mobile technologies, both among defense workers on the go and military members in the field. Ubiquity in the civilian world is helping escalate the demand. “You have a generation of soldiers who have grown-up using this technology, and they recognize the viability of it,” McCarthy said.
That sense of mobility as the emerging norm in everyday life reaches to the highest levels. “You have a lot of four-star and three-star generals who got their iPhones and iPads for Christmas, and they think it is the greatest thing since sliced bread. Now they want to get their email on that phone,” Ait said.
“This is not simply about embracing the newest technology,” DoD CIO Teri Takai said in a statement when releasing February’s implementation plan. “It is about keeping the department’s workforce relevant in an era when information accessibility and cybersecurity play a critical role in mission success.” ■