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Army initiative explores smartphone technology

Service balancing accessibility, security of apps

Dec. 11, 2011 - 10:50AM   |   Last Updated: Dec. 11, 2011 - 10:50AM  |  
An infantryman explains how a smartphone works during a Network Intergration Evaluation.
An infantryman explains how a smartphone works during a Network Intergration Evaluation. (U.S. Army)
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Whether you want to learn the different bugle calls or call in an artillery strike, there's an app for that.

And some of the most promising and powerful apps are proving problematic for an Army trying to provide this information without putting its network at risk.

Indeed, digital applications are off the chain. Most centers of excellence are developing their own apps. The Signal Center of Excellence recently surpassed 1 million downloads over iTunes and the Android market. The service is soon to launch the Army Market Place, which will offer "official" apps that are Army-tested and approved.

The potential is limitless, as apps are already proving their worth.

For example, the Army Blue Book app provides easy access to information on Army culture, history, training and regulations — and it saved $750,000 in printing costs, according to Army data. The Sustainment Soldiers Advanced Individual Training course app showed improvements in proficiency test scores.

The Connecting Soldiers to Digital Applications initiative stands at the heart of this endeavor. Conceptualized in September 2009, the unfunded program is run by the Army's chief information officer and Army Capabilities Integration Center, with support from Army Training and Doctrine Command. It provides applications for select administrative, training and tactical functions with three stated goals:

• Evaluate new training approaches that allow soldiers to learn anytime or anywhere (providing a "persistent learning environment").

• Explore smartphone potential to enable every soldier to access information and learning in any environment.

• Develop means to rapidly update and share information — at a fraction of the cost of traditional methods.

Information security

The vast majority of these apps are unclassified and public, but some are not. Some have "controlled unclassified" or "for official use only" information. Further down the classified vine, there are about 80 digital apps at the tactical level that give soldiers direct contact with the tactical operations center, allow them to tap into an unmanned aerial vehicle feed or even call in a "dust-off."

The question is who should have access to apps, and how they will gain access. If answered well, these apps will give soldiers unprecedented capabilities on the battlefield. If answered poorly, the enemy will have unprecedented access to the Army network.

Apps that access classified data at the tactical level are the easiest part of this equation. The assistant secretary of the Army for acquisition, logistics and technology and PEO Soldier are developing an "end-user device" capable of running those classified apps. The goal is to field tactical apps to eight brigade combat teams in fiscal 2013 and field a device that can operate everywhere with both secure and commercial apps by 2014. Nett Warrior, a system centered on smartphone technology, is crucial to this endeavor.

The effort is still in development and has its limitations. For example, it does not operate over a mobile, wireless network but through tactical radio networks. This is aided through MAINGATE, a Raytheon project managed through the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. The system passes information and communication from any system it plugs into by converting any waveform or data channel into Internet Protocol. Forty experimental systems are already in Afghanistan.

Raytheon's One Force communications system also showed promise at the Army Expeditionary Warrior Experiment, held Oct. 17 to Nov. 3 at Fort Benning, Ga. One Force simultaneously transmitted data, voice and video over 3G and military tactical radios to commercial smartphones and tablets. This allowed platoon leaders to conduct mission planning, monitor the mission and view aerial and ground sensor feeds on hand-held tablets. Soldiers also used phones to send and receive intelligence, communicate with commanders, and monitor blue and red forces.

The final selection is in the hands of soldiers participating in AEWE and the Network Integration Evaluation, a twice-annual exercise at Fort Bliss, Texas. At NIE, soldiers from 2nd Brigade, 1st Armored Division, give a "go" or "no-go" to commercial networking gear for rapid fielding.

Challenges

But the greater problem is the soldier who doesn't need to call in an artillery barrage but simply needs access to controlled unclassified, or FOUO material. The Army can't provide phones to everyone. To purchase and maintain phones and cover data plans could cost upward of $1 billion annually, said Lt. Col. Todd McGhee, TRADOC's CSDA lead.

McGhee said the best solution is to use encryption to allow soldiers to access such data with their own commercial device. It sounds easy enough, but opening this door can prove catastrophic if not done right — and the door is locked by an unyielding Defense Department.

The civilian world does not secure the World Wide Web to protect its data and sensitive information. Agencies and organizations secure their content on their servers. The network is completely unsecure. The Defense Department, on the other hand, defends the network.

"Policy is what is really paralyzing the [CSDA] effort," McGhee said. "Changing the way the Army and DoD currently do business with regard to network security to accommodate the use of these new technologies and mobile devices has proven to be a very significant challenge, and one that is not likely to be overcome any time soon."

In defense of the policy, McGhee conceded that smartphone and tablet technology is new and vulnerable. He pointed to iPad technology, which is "moving at lightning speed" but has been around only a couple of years.

"That is very immature technology that is being handed to our network defenders," he said.

Soldiers can now download commercial applications on commercial devices and sensitive data on government-issued devices. But the Army is still working out the policy and technology issues that would allow the service to cross the streams securely, and it ain't easy.

"This is hard," said Col. Wayne Grigsby, director of Mission Command Center of Excellence, which is leading the network integration effort. Grigsby was one of several speakers on a smartphone panel at the Association of the United States Army's annual convention in October.

Deciding the standards for securing data in transport and "at rest" on the devices has required coordination between the Army's chief information officer, the National Security Agency and at least three other federal or Pentagon-level agencies.

Providing easy access will likely require a significant leap in technology or a "fundamental shift" in how network security and information assurance policies are currently written — and there has not been a lot of effort in that latter approach.

Staff writer jgould@militarytimes.com?subject=Question from ArmyTimes.com reader">Joe Gould contributed to this report.

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