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.  

By , Staff writer

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    A US Army crewman took a cellphone picture of a Blackhawk helicopter carrying then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates between visits to troops in Afghanistan in June.
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When Michael McCarthy started giving out iPhones to soldiers training for war in the Texas high desert, there was speculation that it might be some sort of recruiting ploy.

"There were a lot of people who thought this was a marketing thing – we're going to give you a cellphone if you enlist," says Mr. McCarthy, director of operations for the Army's Brigade Modernization Command.

But that was the furthest thing from his mind. Instead, he was hoping to recast how the Army thinks about technology.

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It was a simple idea – allowing soldiers to use the smart phones they're familiar with to be more connected on the battlefield, whether to check maps or relay information. But it has profound implications for the military.

For the soldiers, the smart phones have already begun to unleash torrents of ingenuity, with some designing new soldier-friendly applications, such as links to the video feed of the base security camera.

For the Army, the smart phone pilot program points to a culture shift that would not only put new streams of intelligence into the hands of soldiers in the field but also give them the chance to evaluate that data – blurring the lines between officers and those they command. And it is sending shivers though the defense industry, which has long had a monopoly on providing military technology.

But to McCarthy, the Texas experiment has been too intriguing to ignore. "An 18-year-old kid has always had access to a smart phone," he says. "So we have the technology that the young soldiers are very, very familiar with."

That means soldiers can adapt them in ways that Army officials might not have imagined previously – and at less cost than the "exquisite" technologies exhaustively developed and produced by the defense industry.

Made-to-order military apps

Almost as soon as his unit began getting smart phones to test in the field, Spc. Nicholas Johnson began designing apps at the request of his fellow soldiers. One app took video feeds from a camera designed to secure the base perimeter and sent it to soldiers' smart phones.

Designing that app also marked an important "proof of concept," Johnson says. "You could in fact very easily and quickly push" video feeds from Predator drones, for example, to soldiers "who can use and digest" that information.

To some officers, the specialist's app might seem like a challenge to their authority. "There's a school of thought that information is power – that if I have that information, and you don't, I have the power," McCarthy says.

Yet increasingly, thinking among officers and Pentagon officials, too, has been changing. Johnson's company commander, Capt. Scott Dewitt, actually challenged Johnson to design other apps that he hopes will help troops on the ground in Afghanistan.

His first assignment to Johnson: Take local census data gathered by US military intelligence officers and make it readily available for soldiers when they visit villages. "When they go and meet with someone, how do we make it so they know this is really the house? This is really the right guy?" Dewitt asks.

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."

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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