IOS, Android or 5.56mm

To what degree are open source portable devices outstripping the capabilities of dedicated military portable electronics?

We are already seeing Android and Apple IOS devices being used for training or mission support roles, how long before they start seeing action on the front line?

British Army training with an iPad application
British Army training with an iPad application


Benefits of iPad use in military training, and any learning experience for that matter, is a decrease in the amount of classroom time required when using the right app for the situation, decreases in costs associated with publishing training materials, and the mobility the iPad offers can transfer learning to any environment.

Where these devices win out is their open architecture and huge installed base that creates a vibrant ecosystem of peripheral manufacturers and software developers, the pace of change is stunning. They aren’t hardened against EMP, have rugged connectors or generally speaking, tough enough, but how long before someone takes a smartphone and cocoons it in an MilStd 810/DefStan 00-35 case.

Oh, already done

The US armed forces are predictably at the cutting edge and not afraid to try things, even if they don’t always work. They have carried out a number of trials using Android and IOS devices in a more combat oriented role, rather than in the support functions like training, information or maintenance but results have been mixed. Raytheon have even developed a complete system, RATS and I think everyone remembers the headlines from the ‘sniper app’


Coolfire Solutions have developed a satellite terminal that uses an iPhone. Special Forces have something called TactSA and gucciest of all, how about a night vision iPhone?

iPhone Night Vision Adapter
iPhone Night Vision Adapter
iPhone Night Vision Adapter
iPhone Night Vision Adapter
iPhone Night Vision Adapter
iPhone Night Vision Adapter


The US Army seems to be moving away from IOS devices but the USAF is said to be seriously considering issuing all flight crew with iPads for mapping, mission planning and documentation.

Recent US Army trials using using Motorola Acrtrix and General Dynamics/Motorola GD300 have said to be extremely promising, contrasting with the hugely expensive efforts using bespoke hardware on both sides of the Atlantic that have gone before. The military GD300 is being produced by Itronix, the well established manufacturer of rugged computing equipment and now owned by General Dynamics.


Rifleman GD30011 Radio
Rifleman GD30011 Radio
General Dynamics Itronix GD300 Wearable Computer
General Dynamics Itronix GD300 Wearable Computer


The UK has a number of dismounted soldier modernisation programmes such as Future Infantry Soldier Technology (FIST) but these have recently concentrated on operation in Afghanistan, weapons and sighting equipment for example. The earlier BOWMAN/FIST integration trials did not end well and the wearable computer more or less consigned to the round filing cabinet after huge sums were expended on it.

Towards the end of last year the US trials resulted in some harsh criticism

Nett Warrior was so flawed it might well end up getting American soldiers hurt or killed if put into the field, five soldiers told me

But things move on and this piece from Fox News today shows progress is being made, the US Army even has it’s own App marketplace!

Training aids, planning tools and other apps in the Marketplace give Soldiers easy access to information we need to keep current

But instead of these glamorous ‘combat’ applications the potential advantages and cost savings, particularly in the mundane but costly areas of documentation, mapping, maintenance and training are massive.

There are many obstacles of course, especially when dealing with areas where information assurance, reliability and security are critical but these will be overcome, of that it seems assured although access to bandwidth might be a significant problem, before we even get to information assurance and security.

This article is very interesting, examining the potential of smart devices in simulation and training, a huge cost across all three services.


It is early days though and how long before we see every soldier, sailor or airman issued with a tablet device at the same time they get their uniform?

Does the MoD have a coherent strategy to address this potential are are we still taking tentative steps and adopting a await and see attitude?

Will we ever get to this.

Close air support, there’s an app for that.


Interesting times ahead.

Tactical iPad

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paul g
May 12, 2012 6:28 pm

‘kin awesome for a tech libarary, half the box body was stuffed with tech pubs plus as an aid to fault finding no more shitty grainy pictures to work from. Not forgetting my favourite, days of removing pages and putting updates in combined with fixing ripped holes to stop them falling out of the ring binders, many a production day lost doing that.

May 13, 2012 4:51 am

Asking for trouble. It’s not like we aren’t already susceptible enough to hackers but the sorts of devices that they are talking about, even with heavy mil-standard protection, wouldn’t last more than a few months in a place like Afghanistan.

I’m all for the technical edge but sometimes the old ways really are better, and cheaper.

Take for instance the technical manuals. Fidgety though they are, they are always going to be better to work from in book form, and cheaper. Allowing a whole workshop access to manuals might mean the difference between a few hundred in paper or a few thousand in Ipads.

And if you are going to drop one of them off a ladder, better make it the book.

May 13, 2012 6:33 am

It’s going to be a shock to the usual suspects when the hardware gravy train stops. Just so long as the base platform is open source and unencumbered, and preferably in wide use.

EMP is hard, but the likes of AMD have been churning out Silicon on Insulator chips for years now, so there’s scope for hardening stuff already at low cost. A couple of solar storms, it might even become general use :-)

May 13, 2012 6:55 am

@ paul g does the army still have all paper for it’s tech publication? @ stv electronic tech manuals are in widespread use in the raf. Either on the units intranet or loaded onto laptops. It’s much easier for things like updates are just done automatically. Clickable links, ability to zoom in on pics, search engines and so on it’s all much easier now than the paper version and if you need a paper version of screen shot you can just print it off.

paul g
May 13, 2012 8:35 am

@topman, not sure i’ve been out of the loop for a few years now, although my last job was working on thermal imaging repair for AAC, we had the digital repair box bodies, which still had stuff on 8 inch floppies!!!

As the new stuff was coming in the methods were changing, I agree on keeping paper as well as tech, circuit diagrams spread out all over the bench gives you nice warm feeling!! I suppose it’s easier for the RAF (no nastiness intended) as most of the repair is hanger based whereas a lot of army tech stuff is done in situ, ie hanging upside down or bent into a postiton worthy of inclusion in the karma sutra inside the turret, normally when it’s raining as well.

May 13, 2012 9:19 am

Absolutely a place for tablet / smartphone sized devices. Tablet-sized screens are installed in many turrets, smartphone-sized devices carried by many specialists. Naturally, as Gen One devices, they are all using different OS and normally only do one thing, but I expect that to change.

What would kick-start the future development of these is for the US and UK to agree on a common OS (whether IOS, Android, etc). That would give companies the confidence to develop new apps.

We didn’t have digital cameras when I was a young Troop Leader, but I expect that these days people doing close recces all use their smartphones to take some pictures and send them back to their HQ. An app in which you could annotate photos, draw lines and arrows etc would be fantastic for disseminating detailed instructions for a BG attack. I don’t know if Bowman has enough data capacity for that.

May 13, 2012 9:55 am

@ paul g ok thanks i can remember when some APs were still on microfiche! There’s plenty of times we end up in some god awful positions working outside covered in fuel for those sort of jobs a paper copy is printed off doesn’t matter what state it ends up in then.

May 13, 2012 12:41 pm

I understand why there is such a rush to get these tools out in the field – if digital applications can save soldiers’ lives, then let’s get this stuff out the door right away. Commercially-available stuff is going to be the way to go if we want to now at a reasonable cost.

Over the longer term, though, I do wonder about the security implications of relying so heavily on commercially-available software. In general, I tend to think that concerns about cyber-security are over-hyped; even setting aside the defensive capabilities of the target, the huge variety of software and systems configurations makes hacking sophisticated networks *really* difficult. Getting past the cyber-defenses is one thing, but without either plenty of time to remotely map out the network architecture or significant inside help, actually manipulating the opponent’s system in ways that are predictably beneficial to you is extremely difficult. At the end of the day, I’m convinced that unfamiliarity is the best defense against cyber-attack.

Although the move towards commercially-available software is a major cost-saver, it also has the potential to vastly increase vulnerability to cyber-attack. If an opponent wanted to hack a system like the NTDS architecture, the first thing he would have to do is steal a copy of NTDS from the US military or reverse engineer it (likely with great difficulty). If your new tactical data system runs on Android, though, your potential cyber-opponent can learn most of what he needs to know about your system by buying the commercially-available software. In-house software development can be expensive to develop and maintain, but an ancillary benefit of that expense is greater security.

Gareth Jones
Gareth Jones
May 13, 2012 1:06 pm

An old article now about military uses for mobile phones but makes an interesting comparison:

paul g
May 13, 2012 2:02 pm

@james i think the galaxy note is right up your street (if you were still a recce monster) it’s a mobile phone with a 5 inch screen with an “intelligent” stylus. The tv advert has it taking a picture and then adding notes onto it with a pen.

I think Adun is right, it wouldn’t be right to totally depend on Apps etc but as a logistics tool for combat support it’s a great idea.

@topman i was till using/updating microfisch in 2005! there were so many pubs for the equipment and the diagnostic equipment that fixed them if all on paper would fill 2-3 rooms, did have a handheld porable fisch reader as well, it was shite!!

Gareth Jones
Gareth Jones
May 13, 2012 2:18 pm

My fiance has a Galaxy note. Very nice. Thinking of getting one myself. Think a large phone/small tablet would be very useful for tasks such as fire support requests, etc. Could have ballistic computing apps, etc. Could you put one (equipped with a camera) on a mini/micro-UAV? could wait till you recover it to see recorded footage or have it send the video/photos to another phone/tablet. Hell, you could even experiment with flying the UAV from a smart phone!

May 13, 2012 2:49 pm

@ paul g i can well imagine i think that was another plus rather than taking reams of paper just 1 laptop is now needed. I think the last bits and bobs were finally off microfisch around that time. But i’ll bet there’s still places in the raf that still don’t use electronic versions.

May 13, 2012 2:56 pm

This entirely makes sense. Many people (including on this blog) have indicated that China is likely to be a future enemy, but before this happens we want to make sure that our entire national electronic infrastructure is based on equipment made in China (including the governments secure communications), and now we wish to do the same with all our armed forces. Can’t see any problems there.

May 13, 2012 3:32 pm

Having said earlier that I don’t think that Bowman is up to the data transmissions*, I wonder if that we should have as part of our standard kit for geographically-defined operations (i.e. somewhere like AFG, or Iraq in the stabilisation phase) a militarised set of cellphone masts that could be emplaced in patrol bases. Where I live, there are cellphone masts every 5-6 miles, and between them they serve a town and surrounding villages of about 5,000 people (presumably all of the networks have a presence). They don’t appear to be too complex, and would be in the capacity of the RE and R SIGNALS to emplace and operate.

So, if that is possible, smartphones – perhaps lightly ruggedised but given their low cost perhaps just replaced when they get bust – become a distinct possibility. For the sort of ops being done in AFG, I can imagine useful apps being:

(Phone / data needed)
Annotated photos.
Video conferencing.
“Quick Clips” from UAV GCS to deployed commanders – 30 seconds max.
Quick mission replanning.
Resupply needs.
Intelligence databases (both lookup and update). Think how the Police access databases when on patrol. Also, the onboard camera for face shots, even fingerprints from an onboard scanner.
Medical stuff from forward medics back to the hospital as CASEVAC begins – MIST, vitals, etc.
I’m sure there would be many others….

(No data connection needed)
Library info for all specialities.

” I am doubly unsure on this as I cannot think what is currently possible with Bowman, nor how much bandwidth these sorts of apps need. Bandwidth can however be actively prioritised to certain users, in accordance with the commander’s intent.

May 13, 2012 3:34 pm

…on the security front, as these are all-digital I assume some light encryption is perfectly possible, and beyond the ability of the Taliban to crack, at least in real time.

May 13, 2012 4:03 pm

Those being concerned over security of systems and hacker access would do well to remember that many of these systems are not actually connected to the internet. Many of the combat systems we use are Windows based – but if there’s no connection to the web a hacker cannot get in. Those that are connected do so through a very heavily controlled firewall and other suitably impressive systems, with top level programmers maintaining them. Having visited the main communications hub at Corsham I have been suitably impressed with the capability therein.

Many of the big breaches in US security have been down to either ignorance of the rules, disobedience of them or lax procedures. Same goes for the breaches here which have involved portable media being left open to theft.

The devices discussed have real potential but we need to focus on getting our existing systems up to an acceptable standard. The new DII infrastructure is awful and so heavily contract-indebted that we will lose flexibility and capability, not gain it. Especially on RN ships, where everything has to come down over the very limited satellite connection we have. But by moving away from traditional operating systems and into the app-based stuff coming out now, we only increase interoperability and flexibility, whilst reducing the demand on eisting PC systems. But of course, when the lights go out a computer is as much use as a brick – so some restraint is needed!

May 13, 2012 4:50 pm

SWI – are you saying DII forces all broadcast through stacoms ? No LF / HF components any more ?

May 13, 2012 5:00 pm

Well of course we still have signal traffic via HF but that is understandably limited. Downloading megabytes of data – certainly that requires satellite communications. Of course this is ships at sea but aircraft and land units will doubtless need satcoms as well for the sheer volume of data we have to manage these days.

Personally I think DII for the RN is awful, but any specifics or hard details are not suitable for open forum. Great when you have landline connections, not so great over satellite bearers.

May 13, 2012 5:22 pm

In all fairness TD we do use commercial security most of the time tweaked for our own ends. But lots of the higher end stuff is way above anything commercial. You can’t hack a paper tape…

May 13, 2012 6:21 pm

@ SI,

to be fair to DII, the system boundaries do not include satcoms at sea. They are the fastest way of moving data when a ship is sailing, but the investment decisions were made knowing of that bottleneck.

I did an exercise once where it was quicker to move 2 gigs of data to a ship by a plane flying out and circling the ship with a data link than it would have been to download over satcom. Thinking about it, it would have been even quicker in that instance to download the data via USB-stick in a helicopter. Slightly sobering (late summer 2002, things may have moved on).

May 13, 2012 6:22 pm

@ James

My experience of being around the Police “accessing databases” usually means them getting on the phone and calling someone, even while you’re standing in front of them with a picture of the suspect from a handout that they themselves (the old bill) gave you while shouting “of course he’s on the f**king pub watch, it’s even got his f**king name written on it!”

As for the ANPR (Automatic Number Plate Recognition) a filth friend of mine (and I use the term “friend” lightly) once explained that it was a download that they did before going out on shift. Not sure if that’s how they still do it or whether it’s a send/receive system now.

re; viruses,
Probably the biggest security concerns would be a) people being lax with their login details and b) the introduction of viruses to systems manually through compromised devices (laptops, memory sticks etc). Of particular concern would be ones programmed to transmit data using your own communication systems.

May 13, 2012 8:52 pm

Commercial encryption for mobile devices is just fine. The issue will be backhaul to the higher level nodes from the lower tactical levels and related ESM issues. Internet protocols are very chatty, which makes users very easy to track, and HF doesn’t have the potential bandwidth that the GSM and Wifi frequencies do

May 13, 2012 9:01 pm


is the consensus that Terry Taliban can’t hack (at least not in a timely manner), and that “apps” generically are safe enough for tactical use (especially if there is a logon required)? I don’t see the militarised masts of cellphones being too tricky.

May 13, 2012 9:43 pm

Most IT security flaws are to be found not in the hardware or the software but in the wetware that uses them.

May 13, 2012 11:03 pm


Ref your “mobile military cell towers” – mobile phones operate in the VHF frequency band, which is already used for military short range point to point radio – I am sure you had a VHF set or two in your little recce tank :-)

In a permissive environment why not use an airship at a high altitude ?

In a high tnreat, well I guess we would just do what we do now, move the VHF repeater sets around as much as possible!!

May 14, 2012 8:37 am

I believe the US is already experimenting with militarised cell phone towers, and uav-borne equivalents. Encryption is still necessary though-Iran Pakistan and China are all within earshot and have more advanced comint than the taliban (particularly China of course). Even if its not decrypted in real time it would still be a useful source of intelligence on tactics,procedures etc

May 14, 2012 8:41 am


Indeed they are. Without the UAV help two problems (have to carry satellite kit to counter them):
1. not much more than 30 km coverage (the operational concept is one of high mobility)
2. landscape contours can be quite extreme (only satellite, straight up,then works – but is heavy to have just as an “extra”)

May 14, 2012 9:30 am

I think you’re in danger here of confusing “Open Source” with “Open Standards”. Militaries, especially the NATO ones, are very keen on the later as adherence to open standards helps interoperability in coalition operations.

They have however sometimes had issues with open source software. These concerns are not usually security, as they will always do a source code review before implementing, but rather the lack of support and a release/update schedule that doesn’t always fit military requirements. The preferred route appears to be open standards based, commercial off the shelf (COTS) software or modified off the shelf (MOTS) software.

Your last image of an air strike enabled via a tablet device is actually closer to reality than you might think. NATO troop contributing nations in Afghanistan already use instant messaging applications (especially multi-user chat rooms in which many people/roles text chat) to coordinate wide range of actions that require instant reactions like close air support, artillery coordination, medevac, etc.

Use of mobile platforms (usually android devices) is increasingly important as is the ability to use as many of these applications over low-bandwidth routes (HF). Satellites are expensive, availability is limited (even for the US) and some terrain conditions aren’t friendly to satellite operations.

I was at a meeting a couple months or so ago, where a DARPA guy was explaining their approach to handsets, software etc. for troop deployment. They’d run a trial with a US brigade in Afghanistan which involved each soldier being given a normal android handset and then being invited to download, from the DARPA app store, applications that might help them. The main intention was to use the handsets as a way of passing knowledge from one brigade to another on rotation.

Interestingly there didn’t use ruggedized handsets. The soldiers were taking such good care of these new shiny pieces of kit that the replacement costs were far lower than expected. So low that they came in below the cost of ruggedized versions.

From my perspective (software company that supplies to the military amongst other sectors) the competitive way they decided to reward suppliers was very interesting. After their deployment ended, soldiers were invited to vote on the usefullness of the software applications they used. The votes determined how much the application developers got paid!

I wonder how many of our major equipment projects would fare if part of the suppliers payment was determined by how useful the end-users (not the MoD) thought the kit was?

May 14, 2012 9:34 am


A lot of the problems with moving data have more to do with the efficiency of the generating and receiving systems to handle data efficiently than the quality of the sat link.

I’ve been told some horror stories about trying to move data by satcom that have ended up costing UK forces a packet (& still failing) due to a combination of our ‘pay as you go’ sat contracts and inefficient system design.


May 14, 2012 1:52 pm

@SWI re:13 May 16:03 Security Threats –

In the past, yes, the danger has primarily been from hackers breaking in through the internet, and most of that danger has been due to lax security procedures (again, a component of the “inside threat”). Incidentally, this is why I actually tend to be more skeptical of “cyber-Pearl-Harbor” hyperbole a la Richard Clarke et al – the cyber-threats of the recent past have been less about anonymous hackers breaking into super-secure systems and more about individuals making stupid choices that undermine what would otherwise be a pretty secure system. It seems to me that these cyber threats have been an awful lot like older security threats, and cyber-security could probably be drastically improved by propagating some sort of cyber-version of the “Loose lips sink ships” message. For increasingly-available software used for combat support and other tail-end logistics missions, existing security systems (coupled with a campaign to raise awareness about basic security procedures) is probably sufficient to fend off the internet threat.

As digital devices begin moving into the hands of the soldiers on the front lines, though, new points of vulnerability (other than the internet) emerge whenever any device communicates with another device wirelessly. I’m convinced that this is going to be a bigger problem than just iPads in the hands of soldiers – increasingly, sensors and transmitters at all levels are switching to digital systems that create the potential for cyber-intrusion by a reasonably tech-savvy adversary. Everything from cell phone antennas to AESA radars becomes a possible avenue for a wireless cyber-attack – I’d suggest anyone interested check out what little public information is available about the US “Sutur” airborne network attack system as an example of this type of capability. Although I am certain there are security measures that can be taken to deal with this kind of threat, the biggest impediment is likely to remain the attacker’s lack of familiarity with the coding and architecture of the defender’s network. My hope is that, as friendly militaries begin adopting more and more COTS software, they keep in mind the possible security trade-off involved in basing one’s networks off of commercially-available software.

May 14, 2012 1:57 pm

@TD: I would normally say that doing things in a piece by piece basis is always better. However, I fear that the desire to achieve turnkey solutions and a lack of expertise on the part of the MOD would see the current patchwork of vertically integrated silo’s working on incompatible hardware and/or software. I remember seeing a contract for an AAC maintenance system that relied on…SCO Unix. And this was during the time they were trying to sue “Linux”!

I do think we need to hardware, data tagging and API’s reference platforms standardised. Putting things in perpective with hardware references we all understand:

– PRR replacement with Android based platform, utilising Wifi, Bluetooth and VHF
– 349/351/352 Android, utilising VHF, Wifi, Wimax
– 320/321 Android, utilising HF, Wimax, GSM/3G, satellite
– Ptarmigan/Euromux Linux, utilising HF, Wimax, satellite, data compatibility via 1/10G ethernet and SDH so you can plug into existing infrastructure if necessary

– compute nodes based on 1U rack mounted Linux servers, ethernet 1/10G communications, iSCSI
– API based on a subset of Java

May 14, 2012 7:07 pm

China doesngt “make” anything.
It assembles things.
I could solder together an ipod.
I’ve built every PC I’ve owned.

I couldnt hack into a secure communications network. I’ve only got into the neighbours wifi because a program was nice enough to record every packet and brute for them for me

Cellphone towers arent tied to a specific network.
Or at least they werent last time I checked, the infrastructure is private, and networks lease time/frequencies/bandwidth

Bank losses to cyber crime are staggering.
A friend of mine had £20k taken, they got her account details, transferred her ISA to her current account, printed a fake drivers licence, walked into a branch and withdrew the cash.
The bank just accepted the loss and that was that.
If even a tenth of what ex Russian intellegence are accused of is true, your looking billions every year.

May 16, 2012 9:20 am

Yes, very interesting link. I hate to think of the hoops they must have had to jump through to get this done outside of the normal purchasing and approval process.

I’ve seen quite a bit of this in the UK context. Serving or recently serving forces personnel (usually NCOs) trying to get kit into service that’ll do the job in interesting, much cheaper ways while avoiding the massive cost layering that goes on when the big integrators get involved.

May 17, 2012 10:45 am

I seem to remember reading last year that RAF Tornado pilots were using Pads to give lots of map coverage. And it wasn’t in training either.

There’s no doubt that the cost/robustness level of COTS mobile devices makes them very attractive and with effective local management (ie purge when lost) some security concerns are allayed (but others open – enemy cracks your purge function!). Corporate tools for trustworthy device management are mission critical, ie ensuring only approved apps are loaded.

Miltary mobile phones ha ha, does nobody remember Ptarmigan SCRA? Gen 1 mobile phone system, courtesy of Racal IIRC. Of course triangulating a mobile phone base station for precision attack is a doddle.