Magazine article National Defense

Pentagon Struggles to Integrate Smartphones, Create Mobile Workforce

Magazine article National Defense

Pentagon Struggles to Integrate Smartphones, Create Mobile Workforce

Article excerpt

The Defense Department in 2005 took up development of a smartphone that could access both classified and unclassified networks anywhere in the world.

The resultant Sectera Edge, made by General Dynamics, would have revolutionized the way military personnel--clown to individual troops--access and share information.

Instead, Pentagon officials got a lesson in what happens when their sluggish acquisition practices go up against the commercial market's swift innovation.

"It would have been a phenomenal device had the iPhone not been introduced before it," said Debora Plunkett, information assurance director at the National Security Agency. "It had been overtaken by technology by the time it was actually delivered. The government can no longer develop and build products in time to make a difference.

Plunkett is among other officials who are seeking to make the Defense Department's workforce more mobile.

The Sectera, which took five years and millions of dollars to develop, has become an oft-mentioned example of the commercial market's consistent ability to outpace government research-and-development programs. At more than $3,000 a copy, the outsized Blackberry-like device with a physical keyboard and external antenna was overshadowed by Apple's sleek, $300 iPhone and other increasingly capable and less expensive commercial devices it inspired.

By 2012, half of all U.S. mobile consumers owned smartphones, with that figure projected to grow to 70 percent by 2013, according to a recent Nielsen survey. The trend toward mobile computing and a reliance on real-time data has been no less dramatic within the military, said Robert Carey, the Defense Department's principal deputy chief information officer.

"The only thing not influenced by information are dumb bullets coming out of handguns and rifles," he said at a July 20 Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association symposium on mobile devices in Washington, D.C. "You're seeing a growing trend ... of us not being chained to our desks. I don't care where our people are, I care that they're doing work."

For that to be a reality within the Defense Department, "the dismounted soldier or Marine in Afghanistan has to have the same kinds of connectivity" as someone working stateside, Carey said.

The explosion of commercial mobile devices occurred so quickly in fact that the Defense Department and other national security agencies are scrambling to adjust network infrastructure and security policies to handle their sudden ubiquity.

The proliferation of smart devices caused "cataclysmic confusion" within the Defense Department, with a legion of personnel carrying mobile computers abutting outdated policies that disallow their use inside some military facilities, said Air Force Lt. Gen. Ronnie Hawkins, commander of the Defense Information Systems Agency.

Most Defense Department higher-ups are what Hawkins termed "digital immigrants"--they grew up without smart devices and have had to adapt to the digital age as it progresses. But 70 percent of current military personnel were in middle school on 9/11, making them "digital natives," said Hawkins.

"They are asking, they are demanding that we bring this type of capability to them so that they can exploit it and use it in their jobs day-in and day-out," Hawkins said. "We have got to make sure we can provide this type of technology to the war fighter.

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At the AFCEA conference, John Hickey, DISA's mobility program manager, asked the 400 or so attendees to raise their hands if they were carrying a laptop. A few arms went up. When he asked who had brought smartphones, nearly every person in the room reached for the sky.

Many of those present were digital immigrants who have increasingly taken to mobile devices for business and personal communication. Hawkins said he has challenged senior DISA officials to begin immersing themselves in mobile devices, to use them as much as possible on and off the clock. …

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