How an iPhone revolution could turn the Army upside-down
An Army pilot program is putting smart phones in the hands of soldiers as a warfighting tool. But the project challenges traditional Army command culture as well as the military industry.
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The app would include photographs of local villagers, as well as information such as "names, sons' names, tribes, and family," Dewitt adds. He imagined being able to send a squad leader into a town. If "he took a picture and moved on, even though I wasn't with him, I could watch him on a map, and watch the information come in."Skip to next paragraph
Johnson designed the app in 10 hours.
As commanding officers like Dewitt notice the aptitude of soldiers like Johnson, they are enlisting their help to design more apps – to help submit a status report, order a medical evacuation, or call for artillery fire. For his part, McCarthy sees overwhelming positives in distributing smart phones to soldiers.
First, he found – to his surprise – that off-the-shelf smart phones are virtually combat-ready. Initially, he was told, "You can't buy commercial phones. They're too fragile," McCarthy recalls.
But over the course of 18 months, he put 1,200 smart phones through "some of the most rugged conditions you can imagine." He had anticipated about a 10 percent annual attrition rate but found that only two stopped working. One was dropped, the other run over by a Mine-Resistant, Ambush-Protected vehicle.
"So we don't have to spend $2,000 'hardening' the phone. If soldiers recognize the utility and value of this equipment, they'll protect it like their weapon," McCarthy says. "The other thing is that if it breaks, or is damaged, or lost – OK, fine, we don't have a huge capital investment in it. You just buy a replacement."
In addition, using commercially available technology allows the Pentagon to stay at the cutting edge more easily. "The velocity of change in the cellphone industry is so fast that by the time we went through the normal Army acquisition process of seven years, well – cellphone technology supersedes it six months after the phone you buy was released," says McCarthy. "What we're looking at is how do you stay current?"
More affordable, too
That brings McCarthy to what he thinks is perhaps the biggest advantage. "How do you provide the best technology you can afford? Afford – that's a key term," McCarthy says. "In the past, we'd go to industry and say, 'This is what we want.' But that was a lot more expensive."
By contrast, if you buy commercially available equipment, the mobile-phone industry pays for the research and development costs, not the military.
These changes haven't been popular, however, among some defense contractors "that took us off of the Christmas card lists in the acquisitions community," McCarthy says.
And even after making the military's needs clear, particularly in a time of budget crisis, some companies interested in providing technology for the Pentagon aren't always quick to catch on. "I told one company that the smart phone must have both cell and Wi-Fi. The company came back and said, 'We believe you only need Wi-Fi, and it's only going to cost you $1.2 million,' " says McCarthy.
"And I said, 'Thank you for your interest in national defense.' "
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