Smartphone upgrade keeps troops plugged in on the battlefield
April 12, 2013
Perhaps the most powerful weapon carried by soldiers deploying to Afghanistan this summer is a smartphone that provides photographs, maps and other mission-critical information about enemy fighters, roadside bombs and friendly forces that they can share and update in real time.
Troops from the 101st Airborne Division and 10th Mountain Division will use the Samsung Galaxy Note II loaded with special software and linked to the PRC-154A “Rifleman” radio in a system dubbed Nett Warrior, according to Jason Regnier, acting product manager for the Army’s Nett Warrior program. The secure radio means the seven-pound, $1,800 system doesn’t rely on cell towers.
Information is one of the most valuable resources on the battlefield, he said, noting that the smartphones provide, “game-changing capability for mission command and situational awareness.”
Nett Warrior, which can incorporate many android-based smartphones, allows team leaders access to more information than ever before, which in turn allows them to make the most informed tactical decisions possible, he said. They can mark enemy and civilian positions alike, navigate the best route to an objective and share text and picture messages.
“This should lead to faster, safer missions with more coordination and a reduced risk of fratricide,” Regnier said.
The smartphones have been tested during network integration exercises involving hundreds of soldiers at Fort Bliss, Texas, and 250 similar systems were tested in Afghanistan last year by the 75th Ranger Regiment, Regnier said.
“The device saved the Rangers approximately 30 to 45 minutes during post-assault operations, and (got) them off targets faster,” he said.
Over 2,700 Nett Warrior systems or variants are in the hands of users, with plans to issue them to 30 brigade combat teams over the next few years. Not every soldier will get a smartphone, but they will be carried by team leaders, non-commissioned officers and officers, he said.
“This gives visibility down to each team in every platoon in the infantry, Stryker and armor brigade combat teams,” Regnier said.
The phones link into computerized battle command systems that the Army has used to track friendly forces, the enemy and significant events on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan in recent years. They will eventually allow troops to link into the military’s next-generation information-sharing network — the Joint Battle Command Platform, he said.
Since the early 1990s, the Army has been looking for ways to get computerized information to dismounted troops. Several attempts have failed due to weight, costs and lack of power of equipment.
The last effort, Land Warrior, dates back to 2004. The size of a laptop, it was used extensively in Iraq, but troops complained about the 23-pound weight when it was sent to Afghanistan a few years ago and the program ended.
The advent of smartphones, enabled by the billions invested in commercial research and development, has led to rapid size, weight and cost reductions.
“What the commercial consumer knows as a smartphone is really a very powerful multi-core mini-computer that is made in high volume at very low cost,” Regnier said. “This gives the warfighter a revolutionary game-changing capability at the speed of the commercial industry.”
Almost all of America’s NATO allies have similar systems in development. Potential adversaries are also aware of the power and capability of networked information that can be fed to infantry leaders on the battlefield at a reasonable cost, as “seen in coordinated terrorist and insurgent activities in urban areas,” Regnier said.
Scotty Miller, vice president for business development for General Dynamics C4 Systems, which makes Nett Warrior, said a key aspect is the security provided by the Rifleman Radio, which is National Security Agency-certified.
“Now you get your soldier connected to the big Army network which provides situational awareness all the way up the chain of command,” he said.
Like the older Land Warrior system, Nett Warrior can incorporate a reticle that can be attached to a soldier’s helmet enabling them to see a screen and maps through one eye. However, most troops in Afghanistan prefer to simply pull their smartphone out of a pocket, Miller said.
Nett Warrior is available in two security levels — unclassified and secret, he added.
General Dynamics has a contract to deliver 4,000 systems so far and expects an order for another 4,000 in coming months, Miller said.