Electronic Weapons: Chasing RATS

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December 18, 2009: While the Pentagon may not have been listening to the increasing calls, from the troops, for a militarized smart phone, one defense supplier (Raytheon) has, and resulted in RATS (Raytheon Android Tactical System). Taking advantage of the open source Android operating system (think of it as mobile Linux), and the thousands of applications already available for it, RATS combines this with increasingly powerful, and inexpensive smart phone hardware, to produce something the troops want. Actually, RATS isn't a phone, it's a wi-fi device that looks like one (as does the Ipod Touch). RATS has GPS, a compass, vidcam and software that enables users to connect, and show each others location on the screen. It's also possible to operate robots with RATS, or receive video from a UAV overhead (like the five pound Raven the army uses thousands of.) RATS has mapping software, and the ability to download maps and use them with the wi-fi location system to provide a constantly updated view of where everyone is. Typically, gear like RATS is carried by officers and NCOs down to team (groups of five troops) leaders or vehicle commanders. RATS can also send or receive video or pix. The touch screen makes RATS easy to use in combat. RATS is a development project, but you can see how quickly it could turn into a water and shock proof, encrypted device, ready for the battlefield.

Army brass are generally unaware of RATS, but this changes the closer you get to the battlefield. 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. These gearhead troops understand how useful RATS or iPhone could be with software designed for military purposes. RATS, or 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. Well, maybe not.

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 bought local cell phone service, and used 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). Within a few years, most cell phones used by companies will be smart phones, which is where most of them are currently 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, like RATS, a very useful gadget, 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.

Many in the army are 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. That's what RATS was designed to do.

 


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