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Army expects to field smartphones next year

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  • Army expects to field smartphones next year

    By Joe Gould - Staff writer
    Posted : Thursday Dec 29, 2011 10:23:23 EST

    Soldiers may be deploying with Army-issued smartphones by next summer.

    Secure, battle-ready smartphones will be on the way to soldiers within months, said an official leading the Army’s effort to harness mobile technology.

    “A year and a half ago, if you mentioned smartphones, particularly around the acquisitions community, they looked at you like a heretic,” said Mike McCarthy, director of the mission command complex of the Future Force Integration Directorate at Fort Bliss, Texas. “Now, a lot of programs of record are looking at how to exploit the capabilities smartphones give you.”

    By mid- to late 2012, McCarthy said, he expects to see smartphones and tablets fielded to soldiers in deploying units.

    A secure version of the Android operating system is expected to get certification from the National Security Agency. The operating system for the iPhone and iPad, iOS, is being considered separately by another agency that regulates cryptographic standards, but the process is slow-going.

    Once they have NSA-approved smartphones, soldiers would be able to connect them to secret-level mission-command computer systems, McCarthy said.

    “When we’re able to do that, not if, that opens up the door for much greater usage of the phones by soldiers,” McCarthy said. “It allows us to build apps that feed those systems and pull things out of them, and that gives soldiers incredible capabilities.”

    NSA approval for a secure version of the Android operating system, called a hardened kernel, will likely come in early 2012, he said. Then it would begin the process of gaining further certification for use with classified networks.

    Among the Army’s concerns are protecting the data on the devices, user authentication (through Common Access Cards or biometrics, for example), and the data as it travels.

    The National Institute of Standards and Technology, through the Cryptographic Module Validation Program, authenticates hardware, software and firmware used to encrypt data on mobile devices used in government. Apple is awaiting NIST’s approval for its cryptographic module for the iPhone and iPad, according to published reports.

    “Apple is doing some tremendous work, which will throw the market open even further,” McCarthy said. “I like competition. It keeps the prices down.”

    To keep up with the latest technology, the Army plans to make smaller buys more often.

    It’s unlikely the Army will start with a massive fielding, given the outlook for steep budget cuts for the Defense Department.

    “We are going to start seeing procurements of smartphones, maybe not 1.2 million at a time, but the first increment and looking at deploying units,” McCarthy said. “Based on the budget, it’s not going to be a universal fielding where we blow a whistle and everybody reports to the supply room to pick up their phone.”

    Although the security issues are still being worked out, these devices are likely to show up on the tactical side first and then in garrisons and schoolhouses, where the tablets would be used for course instruction.

    On the tactical side, Android is the current favorite, but troops have been saying they prefer reading text on the iPad, which makes it the likely tablet of choice in schools, McCarthy said.

    “That just takes time because they have to convert their old-fashioned texts to be able to work on tablet devices,” he said.

    Soldiers said they liked a 7-inch device, which is halfway between a tablet and a phone, because it fits nicely into cargo pockets, even in a rugged case. By default, that means the 3½-inch iPhone and 10-inch iPad are excluded.

    “Apple doesn’t make a 7-inch product,” McCarthy said. “We’ve talked.”

    Although forearm or wrist-mounted smartphones “look cool in the movies,” soldiers prefer to keep their devices in a chest-mounted admin pouch that folds open into a “mini-desk,” McCarthy said. It’s easier to hear and speak into a device, it’s better protected and it doesn’t interfere with the use of a weapon.

    “It’s right there, it’s very easy and it’s out of the way, and we don’t have to spend thousands of dollars hardening the phone,” he said.

    The Army is evaluating smartphones and learning how soldiers want to use them through a series of events such as the Army Warfighter Experiment at Fort Benning, Ga., and Network Integration Evaluation. NIE is the Army’s agile acquisitions process that harnesses soldier feedback to make quick purchasing decisions.

    The next NIE, McCarthy said, is set to take on another key technological hurdle: tactical networks to support connectivity for smartphones and tablets.

    “Once we get the ability to connect into the tactical systems, that will really open up a huge door for our ability to use smartphones,” McCarthy said.

    The Army’s app store
    Just as Apple has iTunes and Android has its Marketplace, the Army will open its own app store in early 2012.

    Initially, the offerings will include unclassified apps for training and administration, and these won’t interface with battle command systems. Expect to see the winners of the ballyhooed Apps4Army competition, possibly updated to run smoother and look slicker.

    A beta version has been live for months, but 2012 will likely bring a grand opening at the Pentagon or Fort Gordon, Ga., home to the Army’s app development classes.

    This public storefront will be populated by apps developed either though the Fort Gordon program or by enterprising soldiers who can write apps to fill a need, or by private industry.

    Thorny questions about the pricing model and protecting companies’ source code had been bogging down the launch date, said Lt. Gen. Susan Lawrence, chief information officer for the Army.

    “That’s slowing us up, so I’ve told the team to get me a date to cut the ribbon on the Apps4Army store, and let our soldiers start populating it,” she said.

    The old model of slow, expensive procurement will not work, McCarthy said. Smaller companies with less overhead tend to make the best partners for commercial apps, he said.

    “It takes the average app three to six months before it is superseded by something else, so we need to be able to rapidly generate apps that are affordable,” he said. “Small businesses can bring those apps in for $5,000 to $50,000 as opposed to a million.”

    Lt. Col. Matt Dosmann, deputy chief of emerging technologies for the Army communications section, said the acquisition and accreditation process “works too slowly for the mobile environment.”

    A secure Army app store on an Army network is expected for this year, he said.

    Soldiers will not have to pay for the apps out of their own pocket, McCarthy said. The Army might award contracts to a stable of pre-approved vendors based on a description of the desired app. Some apps might be paid for by the Army, or the schools and centers or even by a unit — if it needs a special-purpose app.

    It’s unclear what entity within the Army would pay for the hardware, and voice and data charges. “Big Army” is still performing a cost-benefit analysis and internally discussing its best course.

    “We don’t know yet,” McCarthy said. “There are phones all over the place now, but each unit doesn’t pay. That’s just a sunk cost for operations.”