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US Army 'to issue every soldier with a smartphone'

Any phone you like, trooper: iPhone, Droid, WinPho7

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The US Army is working on plans to issue every one of its soldiers with a smartphone – either an iPhone, Android device or perhaps even a "Palm Trio" [sic]. Windows 7 was not mentioned.

The Army Times reports on the military smartphone plans, which have been rumbling along for a while now in various forms. Some US units have been using the ARM-based Land Warrior wearable rig in combat since 2007, which has the same capabilities as a modern smartphone (sat nav, see your mates on a map, text messaging etc). Other initiatives have seen efforts made to use ordinary consumer hardware backed by military app stores and cell networks.

The Army Times reports on another initiative dubbed Connecting Soldiers to Digital Applications (CSDA). The military paper quotes three-star general Michael Vane as stating that the army might simply issue every soldier with an approved smartphone on joining, just as it issues him or her with boots, uniform etc.

“One of the options potentially is to make it a piece of equipment in a soldier’s clothing bag,” the general told the paper, adding that within limits that service would also pay a soldier's phone bill – or provide a free-of-charge military network infrastructure in some circumstances – so as to encourage troops to make the best possible use of training information, manuals, intelligence etc.

Under the CSDA vision, troops would use their smartphones in barracks for everyday productivity – timetables, calendars, notes, looking up regulations, finding places on bases, email etc. The devices would also go to war, and be used for myriad purposes: harvesting biometrics from locals, viewing overhead surveillance video, checking out augmented-reality data showing where bombs might be found etc.

The Army seems to be largely platform-agnostic on all this, with the AT quoting one official as stating “We’re not wedded to a specific piece of hardware. We are open to using Palm Trios [sic] the Android, iPhone or whatever else is out there." Reportedly General Vane carries both an iPhone and an unspecified Android device.

Nobody seems to be fancying Windows Phone 7 much, however.

The military also seems to be accepting that it can probably get better connectivity by simply deploying commercial networking gear into the field – attached to vehicles, masts in bases, aerostats etc – rather than designing special systems from the ground up.

"As new technologies come out on the commercial side, we want to quickly bring them in, adapt it to what we want to do on the military side – and then to deploy it,” one official told the AT. “It could be cycles as short as six months, just like the commercial wireless industry does.”

Britain is already doing this: the UK has withdrawn its £114m Cormorant military war-backbone (delivered in 2004) from Afghanistan and replaced it with much cheaper, more capable off-the-shelf kit. In theory, Cormorant is now ready to scramble in the event of a rapid deployment to some other unexpected war, so it has not been formally scrapped, but the reality is that if Blighty goes to war somewhere else, there will soon be off-the-shelf commercial solutions in place there too.

The US Army will also use existing commercial cell networks in Afghanistan and Iraq, according to the AT writeup – perhaps leading to even more frequent demands by the Taliban that operators shut off coverage at specified times and places.

So, just when will every US soldier get his shiny new iPhone or 'Droid?

In short, Vane and his fellow generals aren't yet sure. But they are quite serious, seemingly: wireless Common Access Card (CAC) readers, which will allow troops to get access to secured military email systems and the like, are to roll out for the iPhone in January and for Android in April.

The details of digital-soldier technology remain to be settled, then: but it is coming, and it seems very likely that it will mostly be based on the same hardware (and often the same software) familiar to civilians. ®

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