Today’s Wall Street Journal contains a story by reporter Nathan Hodge illuminating the challenge faced by defense contractors seeking to sell digital-communications technology to the military. The Army has been conducting field tests of Apple iPhones and iPads as potential additions to the equipment carried by soldiers, and it is pleased with both the functionality and durability of the devices. Not only are the Apple products highly versatile, but they hardly ever break despite their compact dimensions and light weight. The service is also trying out similar devices utilizing Google’s Android operating system.
This probably is not good news for traditional military suppliers, who have been developing next-generation battlefield communications devices under a variety of programs such as the Joint Tactical Radio System. The military systems are well-suited to a warfighting environment, offering robust bandwidth and secure links that can’t be intercepted by enemies. However, they cost many times what an off-the-shelf smart phone does, at a time when the joint force appears headed into a protracted period of fiscal austerity. As the budgetary walls close in, some defense users may decide they can adapt commercial products to meet future tactical needs rather than utilizing systems developed according to military specifications.
Anybody who has bought a smart phone recently knows how rugged and capable such products are. My 14-year old daughter drops hers on a regular basis without any apparent damage, and her twin brother just inserted a chip into his Android that allows it to store 800 minutes of video (or 8,000 songs). The phones (they’re actually radios) burn up battery power fast when functions like the browser are being used and don’t work in the absence of nearby telecom infrastructure, but something tells me there will soon be solutions to those problems. I’m guessing that encryption options for secure smart-phone communications already exist.
Although 99 percent of warfighters today would probably prefer to go to war with one of General Dynamics’ handheld Rifleman radios rather than an iPhone, the pace of innovation in the commercial world suggests that military suppliers are going to have a hard time keeping up with, much less “overmatching,” the devices available in a typical Verizon store. Commercial off-the-shelf products will never offer the reachback to waveforms utilized by legacy military devices in the field today, but as a quick, low-cost fix to some immediate connectivity challenges, they could give military-unique solutions some serious competition. I wouldn’t want to rely on an iPhone connection in Afghanistan as my lifeline, but if the next big military push comes in Guadalajara, my son’s Android should work just fine.
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