Earlier this year the Army launched a competition to design apps, of a sort, that would assist U.S. soldiers in the field, by giving them unprecedented access to information over smartphones like the iPhone. The Army has just backtracked. Fast.
National Defense Magazine has a detailed piece explaining how the upper-echelons of the nation’s military machine went into damage limitation mode in the wake of words on this matter from the Vice Chief of Staff, General Peter Chiarelli. He noted that the typical Army-issued electronic gear is outdated, user-unfriendly, and expensive…in contrast to the cheap, state-of-the-art iPhone and its ilk, with their extremely flexible multi-functional powers. Why don’t we deploy iPhones instead? There could be apps to help soldiers keep track of where their own forces are, and where enemy activity is suspected, apps to deliver up-to-the-moment surveillance imagery to commanders so that they know the tactical situation in places well beyond their own line of sight. It all sounds extremely plausible and beneficial to warfighters, and it could even cost the taxpayer significantly less cash.
The magazine quotes a “senior defense industry executive” who noted that the “technologists went crazy” in the wake of Chiarelli’s comments, but that while “it is a great vision” it sadly “clashes with the reality on the ground.”
And this anonymous spokesperson is right, to an extent. There’s no way an iPhone could be quickly whisked into operation as a battlefield tool right away: It’s insecure, the infrastructure needed to support the systems envisaged simply doesn’t exist, and the risk of soldier distraction would be too high. To this end, the Army is dallying with similar tech in research projects of its own (as are all the armed forces, of course.) The goal is to produce secure, information-rich, user-friendly and cheap smartphone-esque devices that massively extend the warfighting and peacekeeping powers of the military in action.
But there’s something else gong on here. Note that the quote is from a “defense industry” insider–and begin to smell a rat. The typical research/test/procurement cycles that the military goes through are heinously complex, long-winded and end up with one or many companies many millions of dollars better off, with one or two lawsuits along the way for good measure. The products these cycles produce do work, of course–though there are many glaring examples whereby this long-winded “design by committee” approach results in devices that are outdated, overly expensive and not really fit for purpose (a classic example within the British Army is the Bowman radio system: late, expensive, and perhaps even unsuitable for use). It’s in the defense industry’s best interest to keep these sorts of projects rolling on though, as ultimately they’re in the business of making cold hard money, not kitting-out the guys on the front line with the snazziest gear.
Can you imagine the insane, bitter, lawsuit-besmattered fuss that would be kicked up by [insert long list of defense companies, their lobbyists and tame politicians] if the Army suddenly deployed hundreds of thousands of iPhones that “just worked” to the troops?