Electronic Weapons: IOS Goes Commando


November 5, 2016: U.S. SOCOM (Special Operations Command) has, since the 1980s, encouraged its personnel to find new equipment wherever they could and then buy it, test it in the field and SOCOM would buy more if it worked. One increasingly common source of useful new ideas are those implemented using unique apps for smart phones. Since 2011 SOCOM has maintained a library of smart phone apps designed specifically for the needs of its operators. One of the more recent, and most useful is a data sharing app that uses the GPS and other navigation sensors of a smart phone to automatically build a shared 3-D map of the area all the members of a team (usually three to about ten) operators are in. This makes it easier for team members to keep track of exactly where everyone is and also provides more accurate information for smart bombs/missiles called in from aircraft or artillery units. Apps like this only work on a smart phone that has a lot of computing power and many current ones and most of the older ones are not powerful enough.

SOCOM has been looking for solutions and earlier in 2016 decided to adapt some of its apps for iPhones rather than strictly for the Android (usually Samsung) phones that have been standard for years. This is because the special software, like ATAK (Android Tactical Assault Kit) and military grade security that militarized a civilian cellphone one has been adapted to work on the iPhone. SOCOM noted that ITAK (ATAK for IOS) on an iPhone 6S was much faster and reliable than on the Samsung Android phones. Android phone makers are looking into the problem, especially Samsung which supplies ATAK equipped cell phones to the South Korean military.

ATAK has been in use since 2010 and there is now a civilian version available. ATAK is a collection of aps aimed at the needs of soldiers and people operating in rural areas. ATAK capabilities include: Online and offline mapping (with a fast rendering engine), Web Browser, JavaScript, Collaborative mapping, Location marking, sharing, history, Chat, file sharing, photo sharing, video sharing, streaming, navigation (on foot, in vehicles), Altitude profiling between locations, Cell phone tools, WiFi, civilian radio controls, Skydiving tool (w/winds for better prediction), Hunting, Fishing, Ornithology, Wildlife Site Survey. In addition the military version contains a Site Survey Tool, Targeting, precise geo-location, Runway Survey Tools, Military radio controls, messages and interface. All this is in addition to special apps that some countries develop for their armed forces.

Ever since the “smart phone” first appeared in 2005 the American military has been working on a “combat cell phone” and after several special bits of software (mainly for security) were developed these devices are now widely used, especially by SOCOM operators. By 2012 that the U.S. Department of Defense received a military grade version of the Android smart phone operating system (SE Android). In 2013 the American NSA (National Security Agency) has released many of these new security features for use in civilian versions of Android. Initially, all NSA wanted to do was create a version of the cell phone/tablet Android operating system suitable for combat use. SE (Security Enhanced) Android is based on a SE Linux that the NSA developed in 2000. NSA has been active for decades in "hardening" PC operating systems. Since Android is based on Linux, the NSA had a head start in creating SE Android and updating the new version of Android with better security for all users.

With most of the smart phones out there running Android, the NSA saw a national security interest in obtaining better security for the Android operating system. While the SE Android has features only the military needs (or would use) many of the basic security elements of SE Android are extremely useful for all Android users. Most of the security features for current versions of Android were originally developed for SE Linux years before the first smart phones showed up. Meanwhile Apple kept the iPhone competitive with more secure versions of IOS (iPhone operating system) and this led to IOS being able to turn ATAK into ITAK..

“SE Android” was the last key element the U.S. Army needed to move commercial smart phones and tablets onto the battlefield. The troops have been clamoring for a combat smart phone and in 2011 the army began field testing the Atrix smart phone and Galaxy tablet. Both used Android and were designated as NWEUD (Nett Warrior End-User Device) by the military. When SE Android was combined with ATAK there was finally a combat cell phone the troops found useful enough to use in combat zones.

Because of all this progress with smart phones the army was able to drop the wearable computer concept and replace it with a smart phone/tablet version (NWEUD). What made this possible was SE Android, which provided the security (enemy eavesdropping, hacking, and such) against problems that plague commercial cell phones and tablets. Earlier attempts to create smart phone capabilities for combat troops produced a 2.3 kg (5 pound) wearable (and networked) computer with an eyepiece for the display and a handheld (or worn on the arm) input device (keyboard). This wearable computer integrated radio, GPS, and 16 GB of storage for maps, pictures, or whatever. Troops found the system too heavy and not as easy to use as a smart phone or tablet. Soldiers and marines knew that most smart phones could do the same job as Nett Warrior and by 2012 the agreed. The fact that Android was rapidly patched and upgraded had great appeal because army realized it was essential that they be able to move quickly to introduce new smart phone models, if only because the improvements in this area are both substantial and frequent. And most troops knew their smart phone tech pretty well. Apparently the army was not quick enough in adapting their military grade cell phone software to operate on the latest hardware. That was one reason for creating an ITAK and IOS versions of other military apps.

Since the 1960s there have been numerous studies seeking to discover what an infantryman needs to be more effective. One item that keeps appearing is the need to know where they are, quickly. Having a poor idea of where you are has long been one of the main shortcomings of armored vehicles. Armored vehicle crews tend to be cut off from this while inside their vehicle, where they are even more easily disoriented. When the shooting starts even the vehicle commander, instead of standing up with his head outside the turret, often ducks back inside to stay alive. Infantry aren't much better off. Although they can see their surroundings they are often crouching behind something. When getting shot at standing up to look around is not much of an option.

Troops in combat had some unique problems keeping smart phones operational. For one thing, there’s the problem of providing a reliable signal. But that’s long been a problem and there are a lot of new solutions that will work with a smart phone. Then there’s the need for encryption. Again, that’s another problem handled by SE Android and IOS. Gradually military grade cell phone software that could work with digital military communications systems that create the equivalent of a cell phone signal. Once the troops got their hands on this they were eager to use it. Now, like most cell phone users, they want faster and more reliable apps.


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