Army builds smart-phone doctrine

Future of smart phones and mobile devices being established with focus on security, transport layers and applications

Col. Marisa Tanner is chief of the Mission Command Capabilities Division at the Army Brigade Modernization Command (BMC), and Michael McCarthy is director of operations at BMC’s Mission Command Complex. They are the co-leads for the Army's efforts to integrate smart phones and other mobile devices into the force.

They spoke to Defense Systems Staff Writer Henry Kenyon and Editor-in-Chief Barry Rosenberg about the study and testing of operating systems, security schemes and applications that will lead to placing a smart phone in the hands of every soldier. The interview took place at the office they share at Fort Bliss, Texas, just before the start of the Army’s summer-long Network Integration Exercise (NIE) at Fort Bliss and White Sands Missile Range, N.M.

DS: You describe your work as a pilot project. Please explain.

McCarthy: It is not a program of record; it is a project, which is a key term. If you have program of record, there is a formal structure, you have a [Program Objective Memorandum] line, you have an acquisition strategy, and you have the authority to go out and purchase within the scope of your program. This is what is considered a pilot project, which basically gives us the flexibility to look at different aspects. We are not tied to a single solution. 

What we are trying to do is do the research and analysis so that when the Army is ready to move it to a program of record, we can provide them with an informed recommendation on the course of action to follow. In the normal acquisition process, that normally takes about seven years. By compressing it, we have been able to do about four and half years of work in 15 months by separating wheat from chaff. When we went into this, we wanted to be device-agnostic and operating system-agnostic because the velocity of change within the cellular industry is about every six months, and we wanted to be able to refresh with the best technology that’s available at the time.

DS: Are your efforts connected to the CIO office’s Apps for the Army program?

Tanner: Apps for the Army is actually a part of what we are doing. We are the ones who suggested that an apps store be developed so that as soldiers develop apps, they have a place to put them and have a place to retrieve them.

McCarthy: We also need the governance to make sure that we are providing the apps to the soldiers and we are keeping them secure. It will probably be an organization [in charge of the apps program]. We have looked at couple of different places for establishing the apps store. We have looked at DARPA, CERDEC, AKO, as well as Fort Gordon, since they are teaching guys how to write apps. It’s a matter of developing that infrastructure, and we haven’t done that yet. I am sure that sometime in the next six to 12 months, we will have it.

DS: You’ve spread out a dozen mobile devices on the conference table where we’re sitting: smart phones, iPads, even a micro fuel-cell device to charge phones. Is your project strictly about anything that is digital and connects to a network?

McCarthy: No, the key thing that we look at is how do we empower soldiers and give them access to information and knowledge. Rather than committing ourselves to one model of phone — because that phone will be obsolete in six months — we started asking soldiers what they wanted. One of the things that soldiers want in a phone is a numeric keypad, where they don’t have to hold down multiple keys to do numbers because a lot of their information is entered digitally. They want the soft keys, but they also want a keyboard that comes out with the numbers.

DS: What do you tell vendors who say they’ve got a device they think might interest the Army? 

McCarthy: The most important thing that we are looking for is the military utility. Just because they have the shiniest, brightest, fastest new thing out there doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s going to do anything for the soldier. We have got an iPhone that doesn’t have a keyboard, but soldiers like that because it’s the coolest thing out there. So that’s what led us to look for other solutions because not everybody wants to have this particular phone. (McCarthy held up a Dell Streak 5-inch mini tablet.) This is an Android phone, and it is a little bit larger for those of us who have 50-plus-year-old eyes. But more importantly, if you are a leader and have a requirement to brief people or show things, it’s much easier to use this in a group. I have also got a 7-inch one that’s not even on the market yet that the vendor has sent to us.

DS: Is there a hierarchy of who will get these devices first?

Tanner: You know a lot of things are tied to money right now, so there is hierarchy when there is funding. Right now, we are actually trying to get them in the hands of the soldiers and the leadership so we can get feedback on what they need and what they don’t need. So it’s equal; it really is. Ideally, whatever it is going to be at the end of the day, we want every soldier to have it. So it could be every soldier gets a handheld or every soldier gets an iPad or every soldier gets a Dell or may be a third of the soldiers get this, depending on their mission. It’s tied to mission not necessarily to rank or command. It’s really going to be tailored to the mission.

DS: What do you think will be the most valuable applications for military smart phones?

Tanner: I will tell you that right now the collection of human terrain data is paying off big time.

McCarthy: For decades, we have talked about every soldier as a sensor. Well, they are — they see things, they hear things, they are physically present when things occur. But traditionally, they have never had a way of doing anything with the information that they collected. Now he can take pictures and send them to somebody who can do something with it and text him back with the information.

Tanner: The soldiers already have the skill set. Other than the tactics, techniques and procedures, you don’t have to teach much. This becomes powerful because every soldier [with a smart phone] becomes a force multiplier.

DS: What role will you be playing in the Network Integration Exercise taking place here this summer?

McCarthy: This organization will do a lot of things. You just came from across the street at our headquarters. This facility here is actually what’s called the Mission Command Complex, and we provide the live virtual constructed stimulation through interactive use of simulations. That’s our day job. Part of the NIE is an evaluation of Connecting Soldiers to Digital Applications (CSDA) technologies. We have got much more robust package than we had last year.

DS: What are some specific CSDA technologies?

McCarthy: On the transport layer, we have got three different systems we are going to evaluate and assess. One of them is a system from a company called xG Technology. Instead of relying on a specific frequency, their technology for the transport layer goes out in a band of frequencies, finds unused airspace and is able to hop onto that. It’s basically cognitive, and it also does it very quickly. It’s much harder to jam that because it is always looking for that open pan, and it can do it thousands of times in a minute.

We are going to be looking at another solution from a company called Oceus, which is partnered with Northrop Grumman. The Oceus solution is reliant on providing a 3G/4G capability that is portable and can be moved around the battlefield to fill in those gaps in coverage.

We are also going to be looking at the Rite 3G technology [from CACI International], formally known as Trojan Swarm. It’s part of a bigger program that really looks at being able to take biometrics and pull them in and put that to use to protect soldiers lives, but it also has a transport layer associated with it.

So I am not saying that any one of those is going to be the final solution for the Army, but under the Army’s plan may be they buy some from this company, some from that company — buy fewer more often is the kind of approach we are using.

Additionally, we are going to be looking at some technologies with applications. We have got a number of different application solutions that we are trying that we want to again get back to being able to provide that fused information and product to the soldier down at the dismounted rifleman level where previously we couldn’t do it. We look at the rifle squad right now — there are three radios in a squad. They are very expensive radios. They work very well but not everyone has a radio. Not everyone can communicate. This gives us a potential to fill that gap between the existing programs of record.

We are not competing with them. We are not here to make a determination of whether existing programs of record can be replaced by a cheaper product, that’s not in our charter.

DS: What’s the near-term road map for your project?

McCarthy: A couple of things are going to happen, Gen. Martin Dempsey made the decision before he left to go to his new job to establish a combined arms center at Fort Leavenworth, the Mission Command Center of Excellence, which is going to take over the lead for the proponency of CSDA. So over the next six months, we will be transitioning and standing up a much larger organization to do the governance and command and control of the project. with the intent of hopefully, in six months to a year, moving it to a program of record.

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