By: Jeff Child, Editor-in-Chief
Ask me for a detailed map of any location in the world. Or ask me to capture an image of what I’m looking at right now—and within seconds—upload it where it can be seen anywhere in the world. While those and similar feats are incredibly valuable to our warfighters, today they’re routine to any average smartphone user on the street. That said, like anything in the defense industry, things are more complicated. Security matters, the network matters—reliability, ruggedness … and the list goes on. That’s the frustrating position that defense mobility device technology decision makers are in. The capabilities are there and ubiquitous, but adapting to the special needs of the military and to tactical military use is a tricky road.
Last month the DoD released version 2.0 of its Mobile Device Strategy plan. And while much of it is IT focused—and therefore out of the typical realm of COTS Journal—the DoD’s strategy for mobile devices does extend into tactical devices and into the embedded networking infrastructure that the military’s mobile devices connect to. Also the technology and the information access are all part of an overall operational whole. As the document says, “Through faster access to information and computing power from any location, field units can maneuver unfamiliar environments with real-time mapping and date overlay; can identify friendly forces; engineers can take pictures of mechanical parts for immediate I.D. and replacement ordering…” etc. The document classifies mobile devices for its purposes as any handheld device with a display that allows for user input (touch screen or keyboard)—smartphones and tablets being the most popular of these.
The strategy encompasses a number of aspects including everything from wireless spectrum management, mobile policies and standards to the development of web-enabled applications and certifications of mobile apps for defense. On the spectrum side, the strategy calls for improving technologies that maximize the use of available spectrum—dynamic spectrum access, smart antennas, multiple access techniques, spectrum sharing and so on. This also means developing mechanisms to quickly transition such technologies into DoD programs of record. On the network side, the strategy calls for expanding its wireless network presence using accepted standards such as IEEE 802.11-based WLAN networks and 3GPP LTE-based 4G commercial cellular infrastructures. For tactical mobile device usage there’s also a need to mitigate the bandwidth limitations associated with current secured tactical communications methods.
The document takes a step forward in getting a handle on all the various nuances for different classes of military users of mobile handheld devices. It breaks down the users into three broad categories: enterprise-wide, executive and tactical support. Enterprise-wide means day to day functions of the majority of DoD personnel. Executive refers to information sharing and communications functions required by the highest levels of DoD leaders to make mission-critical decisions. Tactical support meanwhile means the use of mission-critical functions needed by warfighters. The different levels of users may require various levels of classification—sensitive, controlled unclassified info, secret, top secret or above. Also the environments may vary—ship, aircraft, for example—or adversarial territories.
Looking at the big picture, it’s a complex set of challenges to serve the different needs of defense users. Presumably JTRS radios will often be used side by side with more consumer-like mobile devices and often on the same networks. It’s interesting though to look at a handheld JTRS radio compared to a cell phone of 5 years ago, and then compare it to a current day smartphone. Your standard iPhone is just as much of a software defined radio as the most advanced JTRS radio. But that doesn’t mean the military could adopt the iPhone as the basis of its entire tactical radio strategy. That would be a stretch given that the iPhone is comprised of a mishmash of components from international companies including some built in Chinese factories.
As the strategies for adapting the latest and greatest mobile information technologies take shape, it’s clear that the demand is super high for the users of the technology. Your average 20-year-old is more than familiar with the power of today’s average smartphone. To tell that same 20-year-old that’s joined up to serve in the military that there’s nothing remotely like that available for him or her to use as a warfighting tool…something is wrong with that picture.
At one of RTC Group’s RTECC/Milestone events last fall, one of our speakers pressed that very point most urgently. In his presentation U.S. Marine Corps Colonel Gregory T. Breazile, who serves as Commanding Officer for the Marine Corps Communications-Electronics School, emphasized that warfighters can and do use whatever it takes to get their jobs done. When purpose-built military Command and Control (C2) capabilities and communications fail to work properly, our warfighters tap whatever consumer and commercial gear they have available. As the Colonel said, the warfighter wants all this stunning smartphone and tablet technology that we see everywhere and wants it now. His core message to the engineers involved in developing military electronics systems at the event: “Technology creators, you need to get it right.”
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