DOD's mobility strategy a push-pull between radios and COTS devices

Rapidly evolving mobile technologies create new capabilities—and rapid change.

Ever since mobility emerged as a Defense Department priority a couple of years ago, observers have wondered how a diverse array of mobile computing and communications technologies would be able to mesh into an infrastructure that, for decades, was built to accommodate systems specifically designed or adapted for military applications.

The fog is now gradually lifting as a variety of mobile systems begin filling roles for service branches that have themselves become increasingly mobile and adaptable. However, the rapid evolution of technology, plus stubbornly slow procurement practices, is keeping some of the latest mobile technologies out of the hands of potential users.

"If you give me a big enough check, I can go buy 1.2 million smart phones for the Army," said Michael McCarthy, director of operations and program manager for the Army Brigade Modernization Command in Fort Bliss, Texas. "The problem is ... by the time we got all the phones, half of them would be obsolete by the time we got them into the hands of the soldiers."

Changing of the Guard

Traditional DOD contractors, such as General Dynamics and Harris, are evolving with the times and are now supplying military customers with highly mobile systems, such as AN/PRC-154 Rifleman Radios and Falcon III tactical radios, respectively. "Instead of having the 11 pounds of [two-way radio] gear...they use a smart phone as a handheld display unit," McCarthy said. "When you unplug it from the Rifleman Radio, it's a cell phone."

Yet when it comes to providing innovative new mobile technologies at an attractive price , traditional contractors are increasingly finding themselves being outflanked by commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) vendors, including Apple and Google. COTS technology offers a level of innovation and mobile flexibility that spurs new applications rather than simply fulfilling existing needs. However, rapidly evolving commercial offerings are also keeping military customers on their toes. "When we started ... nobody had any idea that Android would even be a viable contender," McCarthy said. "It's turned out to be the leader right now."

Brad Curran, an aerospace and defense analyst at Frost & Sullivan, a technology market research firm based in San Antonio, Texas, noted that along with innovation, COTS helps military customers save money. "They have less money [available] to pay Harris and General Dynamics and Boeing for the big, bulky expensive stuff," he said. As budgets are cut more, the military there is going to buy from COTS vendors, predicted Curran.

Curran observed that even mobile system network support, particularly in non-tactical theaters, is increasingly being turned over to COTS vendors. "The military is giving a lot more contracts to traditional commercial companies like Verizon, AT&T and Sprint," he said. "Some of that stuff in the past would have gone to one of the big defense contractors."

Using COTS technology also helps DOD and the service branches avoid the expensive trap of depending on a single vendor for system upgrades and add-ons. "We don't want to have it exclusive so that we only have to use their phones and respond to their business policies," McCarthy said. "We want to make sure that we're following DOD guidance and intent and not being held hostage."

Yet, relying on rapidly evolving COTS technology has its own perils, like when a once essential technology suddenly begins following a seemingly terminal downward trajectory. Such is the case with Research in Motion's Blackberry, a mobile communications device that was once widely lauded for its communications and security capabilities, but is now rapidly losing market share to Apple iOS and Google Android products.

The Blackberry's bleak outlook is forcing many military adopters to search for alternatives. "There's a pilot [program] we're trying to kick off to possibly use an Apple iPad to replace the Blackberrys in an office environment," said Steve Lucas, chief engineer at the Cyber Security and Information Division of the Army’s Communications-Electronics Research, Development and Engineering Center (CERDEC), at Aberdeen Proving Grounds, Md. Lucas' task has been complicated by the fact that the Blackberry is one of the very few mobile devices to receive DOD security approval, a key reason why the product has been widely used by DOD employees and officials all the way up to the Commander in Chief.

Security Concerns

The biggest barrier preventing COTS systems from becoming even more prevalent throughout the military is a long and arduous security approval process. "Ideally ... if we can develop a good security model for these devices, I think they will be very heavily utilized all the way down to ... the tactical level," Lucas said.

Rob Lewis, secure mobile communications program manager at CERDEC, thinks that COTS systems will eventually be used at even the highest security levels. "There's a working document that's been published by NSA to use commercial solutions for classified [applications]," he said. "There's a big push to take commercial off-the-shelf devices and enhance them with software-based security so they can connect and make secret calls."

McCarthy said he isn't particularly concerned that it's taking so long to create a rapid security-vetting process. "We only have one chance at getting security right," he said. "If we screw that up, we put soldiers at risk, we put the information at risk. We are not willing to do that, so we've been cautious in moving forward."

Yet McCarthy feels that COTS device procurement will eventually pick up. "Once we get the approval for the security stuff, I'm sure that there will be some DOD instructions that streamline the procurement process," he said.

Future Outlook

While mobility is now a key part of DOD's computing and communications infrastructure, even more changes are likely in the years ahead. Curran feels that budget realities alone guarantee that COTS technology will become even more widely adopted "as commercial devices become better and more reliable and even cheaper."

McCarthy noted that he and his staff would continue searching for systems that offer the biggest payback in terms of performance, risk and cost. "As new and improved stuff comes out, we'll continue to look," he said. "In fact, I'm looking forward to getting some of the new Windows phones in so we can put those in the hands of soldiers and see if they've overcome some of the challenges they've had with earlier versions."

Another important change from years of close interactions with traditional defense contractors is that it's becoming increasingly difficult to set even relatively short-term operational and performance benchmarks for mobile systems. "Who knows what technology we'll have in five years, or what operating systems will be on the horizon?" McCarthy said.