September 30, 2009: American infantry officers who have fought in Iraq have become tech-heads, courtesy of all the electronic gear combat troops now carry. Officers often have laptops with them in combat, to display maps, overhead UAV video, satellite photos and all manner of data needed for them to fight smarter and more effectively. The troops use night-vision gear, electronic rifle sights and much more. Some get to handle portable radars that can see through walls and binoculars that have laser range finders and electronic links to artillery units. Many of the troops have cell phones. Smart phones, like the iPhone, are popular. The iPhone can use thousands of programs, and some of these are very useful for military personnel. Officers see how useful the iPhone could be with software designed for military purposes. A military version of the iPhone, able to operate on a closed military network, would be a big help in the combat zone. But these officers also know that the military procurement system, which often takes more than a decade to get new gear into the hands of the troops, could never deliver a military iPhone. This has made a lot of senior officers angry.
The troops also want combat ready cell phones. In the last decade, a generation has come of age that expects to carry around a phone, and stay connected 24/7. Their elders have also picked up on this convenience, to the point where the U.S. Army is actively trying to figure out how to make this happen. But the procurement bureaucracy, with an endless list of ways to delay such progress, stand in the way.
In Afghanistan and Iraq, where widespread cell phone service followed in the wake of the American invasions, many U.S. troops have bought local cell phone service, and use these phones when on combat operations. But the troops want more out of their phones than just instant communications. Like many business users, military personnel see the many potential uses of "smart phones." These are cell phones with personal computer like power, and capabilities. About ten percent of the cell phones being shipped this year are smart phones (the iPhone and Blackberry are two of the more popular models). Smart phones are particularly popular with businesses, where most of them are used. About a third of business users let their smart phone replace their laptop at least some of the time. But many business users are pushing for smart phones powerful enough to replace their laptops a lot more often.
This is where the troops want to go. Laptops have become increasingly common on the battlefield in the past decade. But laptops, even lightweight (under five pounds) ruggedized ones are bulky and heavy compared to a smart phone. Not the kind of stuff troops like to haul around. As a practical matter, it's only company commanders and a few others (like air and artillery controllers) who use laptops under fire. But platoon leaders (and platoon sergeants) could use a smart phone with laptop capabilities. So could squad leaders, and anyone who has to drive a truck (armored vehicles already come equipped with lots of computers).
The combination of network access and laptop quality software make a military smart phone a very useful gadget. Add in the GPS, and you have something every soldier would want. What the army is looking for is a smart phone that can work off battlefield wi-fi and have sufficient encryption and ruggedness to survive enemy efforts, and general rough use, to shut it down. The army now has several decades of experience using seemingly "delicate" electronics on the battlefield. There's no fear about this anymore, especially since some troops are using cell phones in combat (although you're not supposed to).
For commanders, a military smart phone (MSP for short) has numerous advantages. First, there's the convenience of having most of your unit data literally at your finger tips. Status of troops, ammo, equipment and the inevitable todo list, as well as maps and plans for future, or past, operations. Smart phones also push data onto a phone, to keep databases and schedules updated. Commanders love that sort of thing, as it saves them the hassle of checking on updates. And updates are a lot easier to collect with everyone connected. Senior NCOs can much more easily poll troops by texting them to get current status of things like ammo, sleep, food or health. Commanders like to stay on top of these items.
The army is in a hurry to get this working, because commercial smart phones are getting smarter and cheaper, and a lot more troops are getting them. Moreover, new smart phone models come out each year, and the MSP would be more effective if it could keep up with that development cycle.
While troops like stuff like personal radio sets (which came of age in Iraq), they also know that cell phones can do the same thing, and more. So the MSP would simply plug into the helmet headset. The army also has to deal with troops demand for iPod features (the most widespread "handheld computer"). The MSP would also be able to take stills and videos, and the troops like to carry favorite vids with them. Combining business and pleasure is not encouraged in the military, but the MSP will be a very personal piece of gear. It might even be able to use civilian cell networks as well, meaning that every troop will be issued one.
The effort to deliver a useful MSP is seen as a lost cause. But the demand is strong, and growing. Something surprising might happen. Then again, maybe not. But when some other nation comes up with an MSP, that might provide the incentive, now lacking, for the procurement bureaucracy.