Unconquered territory: DOD searches for ways to deploy mobile devices at the tactical edge

The Defense Department has launched a number of mobile device programs, but the devil is in the details when it comes to deploying handhelds past the wire.

The Defense Department has big plans for mobile devices, but the devil is in the details as the department and the services work out their various mobile efforts. To get a better grip on what is needed, and what needs to be changed to meet the military’s needs, DOD has launched a series of pilot programs to determine just how to use mobile devices throughout the department and the services. A panel of DOD officials discussed the challenges and the goals and objectives of the pilot programs at a May 21 AFCEA event.

DOD has about 20 mobile pilot programs under way, many of them working on ways to overcome the challenges of using mobile devices in a tactical environment, said Mark Norton, a senior engineer with the DOD CIO’s office. Despite the number of pilot programs underway, only a small portion of the DOD’s funding is focused on acquiring and deploying commercial mobile devices. “The DOD is essentially window shopping at this point,” he said.

After dabbling with commercial mobile technology for the last decade, DOD has experienced mixed results trying to deploy these systems in tactical environments, Norton said. There remain a number of limitations such as reliance on fixed and vulnerable infrastructure, susceptibility to electronic warfare and counter measures, and limited encryption and security options.

The continuing work also reflects the constant state of flux in commercial technology, and the DOD’s efforts to catch up. “It’s going to be the Wild West here as we try to figure out where the technology is going,” Norton said.

The Army is making a major push towards a bring your own device (BYOD) to work environment — but not at the tactical edge, said Lt. Col. Matthew Dosmann, emerging technology team chief with the Army’s Cyber Directorate, CIO/G6. While the service is looking at how to apply BYOD for its bases and garrisons, it wants more capable handhelds for combat.

In the near-term, the Army is searching for a thick-client device to equip troops on the battlefield. This is necessary because in a chaotic combat zone soldiers will sometimes be out of contact with the network, which makes it necessary for personal mobile devices to have some key software programs and applications loaded onto them, he said.

Another issue is that the back end of the Army’s network is not mobile enabled because it is calibrated for data intensive machine-to-machine communications. For example, Dosmann said that the service’s logistics systems need to be made more mobile friendly and automated. Logistics personnel could use mobile devices modified to scan bar codes on supply pallets and cases, which would wirelessly access the network to call up shipping data. “We have a lot of ugly, not sexy just-get-it-done work to do on the back-end systems,” he said.

The service is still working out how it will approach managing mobile devices in a tactical environment, Dosmann said. However, based on its ongoing work, the service has made more progress in how it will ultimately handle mobile systems in this area, he said. At the policy level, the Army must determine how much mobile data to move between the continental United States to operational zones and back and how to manage its back end systems, he said.

Mobility at Sea

While the Army is working out ways to provide soldiers with mobile devices on the battlefield, the Navy wants to take mobility to sea. The goal of the sea service’s 4G LTE program is to deploy commercial mobile devices and services aboard the ships of the expeditionary strike group led by the USS Kearsarge, said John Torres, the effort’s deputy program manager. Besides equipping ships with a mobile cellular network, the amphibious group’s Marine Corps UH-1N helicopters will be equipped to serve as flying communications nodes, he added.

The 4G LTE program is a rapid response program—the Navy has fast-tracked the effort to fit out the ships in December with the goal of operationally deploying the system when the ships return to duty in March 2013. The air wing will be equipped this summer and the entire amphibious group will train with the mobile system prior to deployment, Torres said.

When it is installed, the system will provide the group with an unclassified to secret level, inter-ship line-of-sight and beyond line of sight wireless communications capability. The mobile network will allow the group’s commander to use his smart phone to directly call any of the personnel in the amphibious group, Torres said.

Besides voice, the 4G LTE system will also provide text and a Face Time video communications capability, Torres said. But as the system is being readied for installation, the Navy is still working out issues such as security management, certification and accreditation of devices and applications, he added.