The Army is mobilizing — in a 21st-century kind of way.
Soldiers armed with smart phones are finding new ways to fight and subsequently redefining the battlefield. They can share intelligence and translate languages with what amounts basically to the common cell phone.
“This isn’t the future. This is now,” said Lt. Col. Greg Motes of the Army Signal Center at Fort Gordon, Ga.
Controlling fighter jets, tanks, missiles and machine guns is another way to use the devices, Col. Motes said. Smart phones also could be used for facial recognition to spot enemies and fingerprinting to identify prisoners.
“All that technology could easily be put into a phone,” Col. Motes said.
Field tests show that popular consumer mobile devices, such as the iPhone and Android, are durable enough to withstand the rigors of combat. Many soldiers already bring their phones overseas and keep them anywhere they can find a spot — strapped to their arms, legs, helmets and even weapons.
“The soldiers, they protect these phones like they’re a weapon,” said Col. Marisa Tanner, chief of the doctrine, organization, operational architecture and threat division at Future Force Integration Directorate at Fort Bliss, Texas. “They’ll have it on their bodies at all times.”
The trend is becoming so popular that there is talk of issuing a smart phone to each soldier at enlistment. That vision is still a few years away, Col. Motes said, but the Army already has started the process by setting a goal of giving phones to some soldiers by the end of the year.
The biggest hurdle for soldiers is not the pervasiveness of the phones, but rather harnessing the existing technology. To combat that, the Army has started creating custom applications, or “apps.” The apps are key, but the quickness of their development relies on addressing security issues and gaining funding.
“We have to have people in our population who are capable of doing this,” Col. Motes said. “We’ve got to catch up. There needs to be changes.”
For now, the Army’s apps focus more on information access, location awareness and training. They started building momentum last year with their challenge dubbed Apps for Army, which gave soldiers and Army civilians an avenue to become involved in app development. Among the programs created were the “Physical Training Program” — one of several developed by Col. Motes and his team — and “Telehealth Mood Tracker,” which helps measure a soldier’s psychological well-being. The “Movement Projection” app allows soldiers to keep tabs on American forces and spot enemies.
All of these apps are available to soldiers at the Department of Defense Application Storefront.
Even with the success of Apps for Army, Col. Motes said, an educational curve exists. He said the Army overestimated its ability to build apps and assumed that many soldiers were active in this area of technology. In fact, most of the soldiers who competed in Apps for Army had no experience.
“We’d never done anything with apps before,” Col. Motes recalled. “We’re really in spring training at this point.”
In December, Col. Motes, a self-taught app developer, shared his knowledge with an iPhone class at Fort Gordon. This month, he is teaching an Android class. Although both of these classes are geared toward soldiers with technical and programming backgrounds, Col. Motes said, he hopes to have a beginner-level class for all soldiers ready in October.
Contractors are adding app development to their portfolios as well, and small startups that focus solely on apps have a new customer in the Army.
As this happens, the contractors will bring more experience to the table and be able to deliver polished apps to soldiers. The increased competition could reduce the prices and time it takes to build apps for the Army.
“The commercial industry is chomping at the bit to meet our needs,” Col. Tanner said.
Raytheon is one of those contractors. The Boston-based company has been an Army contractor for a half-century and has begun building the Raytheon Advanced Tactical System, complete with 12 apps and room to add more. One of the apps lets soldiers track the locations of their friends, while another lets them share cameras with other soldiers to relay intelligence information. So far, Raytheon has two Army customers.
“That’s an important, emerging technology,” said Mark Bigham, Raytheon’s vice president of business development. “It represents a new way of doing business.”
Support from the commercial industry will help the Army keep up with demand from soldiers.
“We can’t write every app,” Col. Motes said. “We need our industry partners.”
It wouldn’t be the first time the Army reaches out to defense contractors to build mobile technology.
Right now, they’re deploying traveling wireless networks that attach to road vehicles, aircraft and even air balloons and provide connectivity in desolate regions that would otherwise be without Internet access. It’s the same technology commercial carriers like Verizon and AT&T use in their towers, said Mike McCarthy, director of the mission command complex of the Future Force Integration Directorate at Fort Bliss.
The Army is also relying on a few battery-charging breakthroughs. It is testing small generators that keep phones powered for a week rather than a few hours. When the batteries lose their charge, soldiers can replace them like printer ink cartridges.
Another option is plugging phones into solar backpacks. In July, the Army deployed the first batch of Rucksack Enhanced Portable Power Systems to Afghanistan. The 62-watt solar panel feeds off energy from the sun or even a light bulb, and then repackages it to give the phone a boost.
“We’re letting the soldiers tell us what works best for them,” Mr. McCarthy said.
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