Smart phones – and their apps – go to war

Devices could help warfighters warn others about IEDs or allow commanders to change orders during a mission

The Network Integration Evaluation (NIE) exercise held in the fall of 2011 showed the potential that smart phones hold for the dismounted soldier, both for the situational awareness capabilities they can provide, and because using them would help to lighten the load soldiers now carry.

Their experience in exercises such as the NIEs and the three-week Army Expeditionary Warrior Experiment held at Fort Benning, Ga., last October and November showed soldiers on the ground what smart phones could do for them. They were able to receive alerts from platoon leaders and adjust points of attack, send and receive intelligence, monitor the positions of friendly and opposition forces, and call for such things as artillery support at the touch of an icon.

Ongoing evaluations under a program named Connecting Soldiers to Digital Apps (CSDA), started in late 2009, have shown as much as a 40 percent increase in spot reports that soldiers in the field make when using smart phones, including taking photographs and sharing that data to others in their formations. And Army officials are quickly learning that sharing data, images and even video provide a major tactical advantage.

Last October, the Army decided that the redesign of its Nett Warrior situational awareness system, the latest iteration to outfit soldiers with a wearable computer/communications system, would use smart phone technology. And in December, Mike McCarthy, operations director of the Army Brigade Modernization Command’s Mission Command Complex and co-lead for CSDA, told the Army Times that secure smart phones could be in the hands of soldiers heading to the battlefield by mid-to-late 2012.

The result of NIE 12.2, which will evaluate technologies for connecting tactical networks to devices such as smart phones and tablets, will show how close is the broad use of smart phones by dismounted soldiers on the battlefield, he said.

Lt. Gen. Michael Vane, director of the Army Capabilities Integration Center, believes smart phones, already familiar devices for many younger soldiers, are a key element in the Army’s future. If a cost-effective way could be found to do it, Vane has said, “it probably makes sense in the long run to provide a smart phone to every soldier.”

The CSDA has already developed a set of more than 80 smart phone apps specifically for Army needs, and has involved soldiers in writing apps.

Various companies have been writing military apps for some time. One app that’s been highly touted and already evaluated in tests is SoldierEyes, which uses the phone, GPS and other capabilities of the smart phone to enable soldiers to receive and gather information about a specific mission in real time, greatly improving tactical response.

Another is Northrop Grumman’s Joint Tactical Handheld (JTacH), which provides text messaging, email and a full-color blue force tracking display. It’s a version of the JBCB2 Joint Capabilities Release (JCR), which the company developed for the Army, and which is interoperable with the JCR as fielded.

“It’s been tailored to what the dismounted soldier would need to exploit in any contact situation,” said Joe Taylor, Northrop Grumman’s vice president of ground combat systems. “We’ve taken out some of the more obscure message presets that deal with the operational and higher levels of command, so it’s a slimmer version of the software and yet it’s still completely integratable with the fuller software running on other platforms.”

That’s an important point when designing software that is immediately useful to the dismounted soldier, he said. What’s needed at the dismounted edge of the tactical network is not the full data or imagery that a brigade commander might want. Instead, all platoon leaders need to see on their smart phone or tablet is what’s on the other side of a compound wall, or the high ground that’s beyond the bridge they have to cross.

Other apps could be simpler, such as one that allows dismounted soldiers to mark improvised explosive devices in their areas with icons that show up on the smart phone display. The idea is to provide soldiers with a list of usable apps they can mix and match according to relevant mission needs.

The Army was expected to open its own app store some time early in 2012, to be called the Army Market Place. Companies such as Raytheon, with its Appsmart portal, are also providing secure defense and intelligence apps for smart phones.

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