"Our target going forward is to hit 35 kilometers from the base station," says McCarthy about the Army's ideas for how it might set up a network of portable base stations on the go. The Army would like to be able to transport wireless radio base station equipment of some type to wherever it's needed, quickly setting up and tearing down a network for smartphones for assigned military frequencies.
The Amy appears to be the first among the U.S. military services to take this much interest in using smartphones, though the Air Force and Navy are motivated as well, says McCarthy. He adds U.S. allies, such as NATO partners, also have "significant interest."
But can commercial smartphones really meet the Army's security and operational requirements?
The Army is working to find out, checking out about 1,200 smartphones and other devices (including about 15 basic models of Apple iPhones and iPads, Google Android, and Microsoft Windows Mobile). "The folks at HP are coming out with WebOS, and they will send me some devices to test," says McCarthy.
But the Army says it doesn't want to be picking a single winner. One way envisioned to achieve smartphone heterogeneity involves using a software HTML-based framework that Army developers came up with that allows for writing smartphone applications once so they run on multiple smartphone operating systems. It's hoped this would eliminate the need to write apps multiple times for various smartphone operating systems, says McCarthy. "We're trying to stay device- and OS-agnostic," he says, adding that the Army's aspiration is to "buy the right phones for the right people for the right reason."
The Army anticipates turning to both the commercial sector and its own Army developers for the apps the military may need. Developers at Fort Lee, N.J., some time ago came up a couple hundred logistical apps for both Google Android and the Apple iPhone, while army specialists at Fort Bliss have written about two dozen tactical applications, including variants on a medical-evacuation request.
Tests have shown that the speed of filling out medical evacuation forms can be reduced from 15 minutes to 1.5 minutes using smartphone capabilities, says McCarthy.
If smartphones do end up being used in military operations by soldiers, these devices could end up being "as important to them as their weapon," McCarthy suggests. At the same time, there's also the notion that if smartphones were lost or damaged, there would be a way to treat them as scrapped and move on to a new one. And because smartphones use touch screens, the Army might need to find different gloves for soldiers than the ones generally used today.
Smartphone apps are already showing their value in pilot projects involving training of soldiers that includes making material available via smartphones that soldiers carry around on base. This is boosting their grade-point averages when taking Army exams, apparently because the smartphones help spur a little competition among soldiers, almost like a video game, says McCarthy. "Before, we had PowerPoint handouts," he adds, which wasn't always regarded as a compelling training format.
But are smartphones and tablets tough enough in terms of security and ruggedness to join the Army?