Magazine article National Defense

Wireless Phones to Be Made Secure, by Pentagon Standards

Magazine article National Defense

Wireless Phones to Be Made Secure, by Pentagon Standards

Article excerpt

The lack of secure telephone communications between U.S. and allied military forces was an oft-heard complaint during the Persian Gulf War and subsequent operations involving multi-national coalitions.

Now, the Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA) is trying to get out the message that there is a relatively easy way to achieve secure voice communications among coalition partners. For about $4,000, U.S. government officials and selected military allies can purchase a wireless handset that meets National Security Agency encryption standards.

This capability ensued from the Defense Department's $72 million investment in Iridium Satellite LLC, which operates a constellation of 66 communications satellites. That constellation was about to be rendered inoperative, after Iridium filed for bankruptcy in 1999. But a number of investors, including the Defense Department, bought the satellites at a bargain price, and Iridium was resurrected. The company re-launched its satellite-phone services earlier this year.

Under the terms of the agreement, the Pentagon is entitled to 20,000 handsets and gets a low-cost calling plan. U.S. government users get free unlimited air time between Iridium handsets and pay $40 per month for up to 500 minutes of air time when they are connected to terrestrial commercial phone lines.

So far, DISA, which manages the program, has signed up nearly 4,100 users, half of whom are from the State Department. DISA officials predict that the numbers will go way up, once the word gets out that this service is available. Beginning in July 2001, users can purchase "secure sleeves" for $2,270 each. The secure sleeve looks like a battery pack and is attached to the back of the Iridium 9505 handset, which costs $1,465. The 12-ounce handset is sleeker and lighter than the 16-ounce brick-shaped device that the company inherited from the former Iridium, which went out of business, because it could not sign up enough customers to buy a bulky $3,000 handset and pay $3 per minute of air time. Those old handsets now are being sold for less than $500.

A 9505 handset with the secure module and cable costs $3,998, said Army Col. Tim Fong, DISA's program director. "All Defense Department users are required to buy the phone with the secure sleeve. The older phones were not securable," he told reporters during a briefing in Leesburg, Va.

Allied nations interested in purchasing Iridium handsets with the encryption capability are NATO members, New Zealand and Australia, said Fong. Potential non-military U.S. government users, besides the State Department, are the Drug Enforcement Agency and the Coast Guard.

Canada, the United Kingdom and Australia "are very interested," said Fong. The British and the Australians still have older handsets and want the new phones. "We have an agreement between the U.S. and those three countries that allows them to purchase the 9505 phones with a secure sleeve," said Fong. Only the Joint Chiefs of Staff can approve foreign use of any of the Defense Department's 20,000 Iridium slots, he said. "They have to make sure that the U.S. needs are met first."

The State Department now is the biggest user of Iridium, said Fong. "They need secure communications that don't have to go through another country's public infrastructure. …

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