Marine Corps mobile device strategy looks to cut costs

A 'bring-your-own-approved-device' strategy will allow users to gain secure access with personal devices while reducing costs.

Squeezed by budget cuts and seeking to leverage commercial technologies, the U.S. Marine Corps is adopting a new approach to its mobile device strategy as a way to creatively cut costs while getting secure handsets into the hands of more service personnel. In  a keynote presentation at the Defense Systems Innovation Forum on July 25, Rob Anderson, chief of the Marine Corps’ vision and strategy division, outlined the strategy that leverages collaboration with commercial partners and other federal agencies.

Anderson said the requirements of the Marine Corps’ mobile strategy focus on security, collaboration and cost effectiveness to deliver a secure mobile device capability. For command and control, this approach will enhance the service’s ability to collect and share data in real time on the battlefield.

Another focus of the Marine strategy is incorporating personal mobile devices into service networks.

Known as bring your own device, or BYOD, the approach allows users to gain limited access to an agency’s secure network and content. The personal device would run two operating systems simultaneously, giving  users  the best of commercial and defense enterprise services. “This is something that a lot of people in the dotmil [domain] would like to do, but we’re not there yet,” said Anderson. “However, we believe that there is already precedence in personal devices connecting to the defense infrastructure network.”

In a variation on the traditional BYOD approach, Anderson said the Marine Corps aims to allow users to “bring [their] own approved devices,” which are instead procured by the government but paid for by the user, managed by  a service provider and supported by leveraging the platforms of other agencies like the Defense Information Systems Agency.

“Just for our BlackBerries today… 55 percent of [our costs] are on maintenance. It’s not on voice and data plans,” Anderson said, adding that there are only two ways to save money: eliminate users or reduce infrastructure requirements.

“Our mobility strategy is based straight up on IT investment opportunities,” he said. “In other words, cost avoidance.”

To reduce the 15,000 current users with government-procured devices, the Marine Corps will draw tighter distinctions between users whose missions are either essential or critical and those whose missions are not. Under the plan, these “privileged” users will supply their own device and data plan. Unlike their non-privileged counterparts, these users' expenses will be partially reimbursed by the Marine Corps.

In another cost cutting move, Anderson said the Marine Corps will rely on commercial providers rather than federal agencies for mobile device management (MDM). Anderson said he has talked extensively with Sprint, Verizon and AT&T to develop an implementation plan that would allow the service to outsource its security policies.

“The DOD commercial device implementation plan [talks] about rolling all the MDMs within the services up to DISA. Well, our intent is to not have a MDM at all, and have a carrier manage that -- based upon the DISA’s security policies.”

Anderson also envisions savings by simply not building platforms already in development. “We will not build a classified environment to support mobility,” he said. “We do not have the money for it.”

Instead, it will rely on DISA initiatives to fill the gap. Similarly, citing a contract DISA awarded in June to Digital Management Inc. for mobile application and device management, Anderson said the service will not create an application store for its users. “Why would we spend money on something that DISA already spends money on?”

In August, the service will distribute a survey to potential users in order to gauge interest in the BYOD program. Anderson said he hopes the incentive to gain secure access with a personal device will be sufficient for users to pay for their own plans. Next, data testing will occur with 20 users to confirm that commercial carriers can provide MDM. If successful, a pilot testing program with 500 users is expected to begin by early 2014, with a system deployed across the entire Marine Corps by next July.

The greatest challenge, Anderson concluded, is proving the business case to commercial carriers. Without carrier agreements in place to supply trusted handheld devices, the Marine Corps will be forced to shift to an alternative mobile security strategy, he warned.

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