Magazine article National Defense

Soldiers Skeptical of Smartphones in Combat

Magazine article National Defense

Soldiers Skeptical of Smartphones in Combat

Article excerpt

WHITE SANDS MISSILE RANGE, N.M.--Three soldiers hunkered down behind a small ridge of dirt and rocks, are taking cover out in an open desert landscape.

One cautiously peered out over the horizon, while another looked into the distance through a pair of binoculars. A third lay on his stomach, using a stylus to leaf through apps on a smartphone.

This has been a typical scene here lately as the Army searches for ways to convert the hottest commercial devices into tools of war.

Officials want to bring the battle network to "the tactical edge," they say, communicating in any environment, on the move and from command locations down to the soldier about to bust through a door in an Afghan village. Network Integration Evaluation exercises held here and at nearby Fort Bliss, Texas, will help determine what equipment to put in the hands of troops and how much information is too much for the individual soldier.

Commercial smartphones are playing a big role in these investigations. They are lightweight, inexpensive and most soldiers already use them in civilian settings. But the Army is finding out that the devices may not always be needed or even wanted on the battlefield.

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Troops here have been experimenting with Android phones to send data back and forth. They use them to plan missions, receive sensor feeds, mark buildings and rooms that have been cleared, communicate via text message and track friendly and enemy forces. However, the multitude of applications can be too much for the lowest-level troops, soldiers said.

Army Pfc. David Kramlich had been battle-testing smartphones here for a few weeks when he held one up and said, "There's no need for me to have this."

He was talking about the Joint Battle Command-Platform (JBC-P) Handheld, one of the prototypes the Army is trying out. The JBC-P Handheld consists of a smartphone connected to a Rifleman Radio, which provides GPS and voice communications.

"Sure, I can tell where I am," Kramlich said, but he doesn't need to be overloaded with information that is used to make command decisions.

His opinion has been echoed by several soldiers here, who are also experimenting with a similar system. Nett Warrior began years ago as a weighty suite of wearable computers. It has been shrunk down to individual phones and tablets carried in pouches on the front of the uniform or on the sleeves.

Smartphones "should stay at the level of a section sergeant. Don't give it to every soldier," Kramlich said.

"Privates don't need to be looking at maps and planning" data when they are going on raids, said Staff Sgt. Cody Moose, who has been using Nett Warrior during the ME. "It's a lot of stuff. Do I need it? It's not my decision to make."

But in a way it is. Army leaders have insisted that they will be using feedback from soldiers conducting these semi-annual network exercises to inform acquisition decisions. Recommendations from this fall's event will be put in a report and shipped off to the Army's Training and Doctrine Command. By the end of January, Army brass will make decisions on which technologies to pursue and which to leave alone, said Col. Dave Miller, deputy commander of Brigade Modernization Command.

And the consensus among soldiers and their leaders at the NIE seems to be that not every soldier needs Nett Warrior, JBC-P Handheld or the amount of data they provide. It may make more sense to give the commercial phones to soldiers stateside to speed up some training tasks and handle other non-battle activities such as checking their pay, officials said.

But it is a completely different story on the battlefield.

"I don't believe [soldiers] down to private need this," Moose said. "It's more of a distraction. Do I want him looking down at a phone instead of doing his job?"

Smartphones have become ubiquitous in civilian life, and efforts to bring individual soldiers into the network have zeroed in on the handheld devices. …

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