It wasn’t one of those epic Steve Jobs product roll-outs. Not even close. But in an obscure warren of the Pentagon, the Army took a major step towards embracing the smartphone revolution that Jobs did so much to promote. Only the mobile device it unveiled is best described smartphone-esque — and it might cause bureaucratic and financial problems if the Army actually does decide soldiers need to carry real smartphones.
The phone-like thing you see above is what the Army is calling its End User Device. It’s the next design for the Army’s Nett Warrior system — an expensive program that’s tried, and failed, for 20 years to connect soldiers to one another through a suite of wearable computers, radios and keyboards. Now, it’s a device that weighs under a pound and connects to a radio. And it will very, very likely run on Google’s Android operating system.
That’s right. No more eight-to-15 pound pieces of kit to slap onto a soldier already humping a ton of body armor. No more banana-shaped keyboards hanging down from a load clip. No more cables connecting the whole thing that tangle a soldier up. And no more funky monocle attached to a helmet for a heads-up display. Nett Warrior, the descendant of another failed program called Land Warrior, has finally joined the 21st century.
With one very important distinction. “This is not a phone,” clarifies Brig. Gen. Camille Nichols, the leader of the Army office, called Program Executive Officer Soldier, in charge of the Nett Warrior program. And that could be a problem.
For the last few months at Danger Room, we’ve been reading the Army’s smoke signals about junking Nett Warrior’s cumbersome design — which did less for soldier data networking than the phone in your pocket did in 2008 — and starting from scratch. In July, the Pentagon’s acquisitions folks put Nett Warrior on pause for a re-think. Last month, the Army quietly solicited the mobile-phone industry about giving Nett Warrior a brain transplant — with its new smartphone-like brain powered by Android.
On Thursday morning, to a small group of reporters, the Army made it official. The End User Device is the new brain, heart and soul of Nett Warrior. It’s an Android device. Nett Warrior’s ears and mouth will remain a radio — specifically, the Army’s Joint Tactical Radio System. Taken together, the system will weigh less than three pounds, with more than two of those pounds coming from the Rifleman Radio.
The End User Device won’t be wi-fi enabled. In fact, if the Army has its way, it won’t ever connect to a civilian network. It’ll hook into the Army’s brand new data nets, as well as other classified military networks. The devices themselves will encrypt data that they store; and there will be another level of encryption when transmitting or receiving data. No one wanted to say the word “WikiLeaks,” but it’s obvious that data security is a big, big concern for the Army.
Soldiers who are used to the smartphones they carry in civilian life will find the End User Device pretty familiar — up to a point. Apps? It’s got them, though the kinks are being worked out. Nichols said that she anticipates the devices will connect to the Army’s forthcoming App Store, Marketplace — which Danger Room exclusively reported on in April.
There — or, perhaps, loaded onto the Device from jump — soldiers will find a variety of useful apps. A civilian directly overseeing Nett Warrior, Bill Brower, said the Device will run a mapping-and-tracking function similar to Blue Force Tracker, a program that lets soldiers keep track of where their colleagues are on the battlefield to avoid friendly-fire incidents and know how far away help is. There will be a “mission planning tool” that lets commanders design and then send out their plans for a given task.
Nichols’ shop doesn’t know whose hardware will actually become the End User Device. Later this month, the Army will take about 60 phones that Nichols literally purchased from BestBuy off the shelf and test them in rugged conditions during a scheduled “Network Integrated Evaluation” exercise. There are a lot of questions — like which devices can stand up to the harsh, dirty, un-delicate conditions of a warzone; and which touchscreen is rugged and responsive enough to a soldier jabbing at it with a finger wrapped in a flame-retardant glove.
Oh, and it won’t just be phones tested out at the exercise. Tablets will be tested, too. In order to ensure that Nett Warrior doesn’t fall back behind contemporary tech, every year devices will be put to the test to figure out what the next-gen End User Device should be. Someday, Brower says, it could be a tablet.
But however the devices perform, the winner is Google. iPhones will not be part of the October test, Brower confirms to Danger Room. Neither will any Windows phones. This is an Android party.
“No disrespect,” Brower says.
But even with Nett Warrior’s massive upgrade, there’s still one big problem looming over it. It’s not a phone.
And the Army brass loves smartphones. For the past year-plus, Gen. Peter Chiarelli, its deputy chief of staff, has been flirting with the idea of requiring soldiers to carry smartphones for all their communications and data needs. Supporting smartphones is one of the main rationales for the Army’s new data network. The Army’s Training and Doctrine command (TRADOC) created a Mobile Applications Branch and a program called Connecting Soldiers to Digital Applications to think through the specifics of an Army smartphone program, from data security to configurations to the kinds of apps worth having. This program is active and ongoing.
You can see the redundancy coming down the pike. It doesn’t make any sense for Nett Warrior to equip soldiers with an End User Device while the Army also requires soldiers to carry a smartphone — which will probably do everything Nett Warrior does; run on the same secure network; host the same Marketplace app store; host email; and also — oh yeah — be a phone. And this is an era where defense budgets are declining drastically, with the Army likely to face major funding cuts.
Nichols concedes the possible redundancy between the End User Device and potential Army smartphones is a problem. “We’ll have to work through TRADOC,” she says, to figure out what device or system wins out “if they merge, or don’t merge.”
But for now, the new Nett Warrior is moving full speed ahead. By mid-2012, Brower says, the Army will figure out what manufacturer will make the Nett Warrior End User Device, a crucial step for getting them into the hands of soldiers.
“We’re coming truly into the 21st century,” a proud Nichols beamed. It took long enough.
Photos: Spencer Ackerman