National Security

Published — January 10, 2012 Updated — May 19, 2014 at 12:19 pm ET

Problems with battlefield smartphones

Soldiers worry about distraction

Introduction

In mid-November, when the Army asked soldiers to test and appraise the high-tech communications devices that came from what’s left of the JTRS program, the answers they got were not exactly reassuring.

After gathering in a dusty valley ringed by low mountains in New Mexico, a part of the White Sands Missile Range, the soldiers jumped from armored vehicles in a “village” composed of cheap plywood-and-concrete structures, including one with the word “mosque” sprayed on the side.

Guided by robotic aircraft droning overhead, they advanced towards a cluster of buildings, rifles raised, eyes scanning, radios softly chirping. Inside the buildings, heavily-armed “insurgent” fighters prepared a deadly ambush. Some were equipped with new JTRS-compatible Rifleman radios, which the Army had just agreed to buy from General Dynamics for $56 million, or around $8,750 a copy.

They also had prototype handheld devices meant to provide them Internet-like connectivity even in the middle of a desert; the devices are similar in appearance to an iPhone, and allow even the most inexperienced private to take and transmit photos and videos and track other soldiers via GPS.

But, instead of being thrilled by all that connectivity, some of the soldiers complained not only about the radios they used, but about the Army’s strategic vision of a battlefield Internet. “It’s a distraction,” Staff Sgt. Cody Moose told visiting media and industry officials at the White Sands mock village. “I don’t believe a private needs one.”

What a private needs, Moose said, is to pay attention to the ground around him, be ready with his rifle and listen to his squad leader. The smartphone-like devices are a classic example of “too much information.” “You get sucked into it when you could just look around,” says 2nd Lt. Adam Martin, standing nearby at a makeshift display for the new radios and smartphones.

The smartphones tested were also unreliable. Soldiers complained about their weight and the inaccuracy of their built-in GPS. The Army nonetheless plans to buy 215,000 of the devices — one for every front-line soldier.

John Lynn, a professor of military history at Northwestern University, said he understands the reasons for such skepticism. “Militaries develop sets of assumptions and expectations and then they want to fight wars the way they think they should be fought according to those expectations. This notion of trying to create equipment that will allow you to have a cyber battlespace — that’s a cultural conception trying to impose itself on the real world.”

“That in the ’90s we were so taken up with ‘netcentric’ war makes a certain kind of sense,” Lynn added. “That we continue to be, is somewhat strange.”

Read more in National Security

Share this article

Join the conversation

Show Comments

Leave a Reply

avatar
  Subscribe  
Notify of