The 21st-Century Mobile Military

Last month, the Defense Advance Research Projects Agency (DARPA) teamed up with the National Institute for Standards and Technology to announce a new Android-based smartphone which helps members of the military conduct real-time translation on the ground in Afghanistan. TRANSTAC (TRANSlation system for TACtical use) is equipped with sophisticated voice recognition software capable of translating between English, Pashto, Dari, and Iraqi Arabic, so it promises to provide far-reaching and valuable assistance to troops in the battlefield.

TRANSTAC presents just one example of the rapid adoption of mobile technology in the military. Several other applications have emerged over the years, and it’s worth taking a look at what’s out there -- and what’s to come:

This month at Fort Bliss in Texas, soldiers have been allocated Kindle e-reader books to serve as electronic user manuals. Currently, reports Bob Brewin of NextGov, the U.S. Army administers bulky paper copies of operations manuals through an inefficient process which is made redundant every time a new version of the equipment is released. Through a mobile network, says Brewin, updated e-manuals can be delivered in the battlefield cheaply and more efficiently through the adoption of Kindles.

Late last year, defense contractor Raytheon released the Raytheon Android Tactical System (RATS) to provide real-time intelligence to soldiers in the battlefield. Equipped with the software, soldiers can view satellite feeds of their terrain, interface between various forms of communication, transmit intelligence data and photos, and track up to twenty of their compatriots using GPS.

Michael Bostic at Police Magazine illustrates RATS’ implications:

Imagine a 10-officer team staking out a group of suspects from several locations simultaneously. Now, imagine the supervisor and team can observe each others' movements, simultaneously communicate via text message and call up a map of an entire building that suspects are about to to enter... you can be a part of the force from wherever you are, with your phone receiving all the same real-time information as your team in the field.

Continuing with this trend, DARPA just recently announced the winners of its Apps for Army contest (A4A), which challenged servicemembers to create 21st-century mobile solutions to aid U.S. troops abroad. The winning submissions include a rigorous military-specific iPhone physical training app and an Android-based utility to help the military coordinate humanitarian and disaster relief programs using Google Earth.

TRANSTAC, RATS, and A4A demonstrate how mobile technology is rapidly integrating with military processes. Earlier this year, for example, the U.S. Army released its first official iPhone app which provides links to the Army’s blogs, games for users to test their military skills, and a comprehensive military facts database. The app, dubbed U.S. Army News and Information, reveals how mobile technology is transforming military recruitment efforts at home just as it is changing the landscape in the battlefield.

Incorporating mobile phones into the military brings with it a particularly unique set of challenges.
First, network strength and reliability become life-or-death issues in the battlefield, since soldiers in action can’t afford to lose signal in rugged terrain or rural areas. A brand-new technology developed by Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA), set to hit the ground in Afghanistan later this year, addresses the network reliability issue by providing portable, secure, 3G wireless network “nodes” to combat units spread throughout the country. Lockheed and xG Technology are also pursuing military-grade wireless network solutions.

Another critical challenge is finding a power source for these mobile technologies in areas where reliable access to juice is few and far between. To keep batteries charged, some companies are exploring “solar backpacks” equipped with lightweight solar cells to efficiently and reliably keep their mobile technology charged and ready-to-go.

As the world begins to reckon with modern technology and devices, military forces have witnessed the power of mobile tech to transform the way they mold their strategy abroad and within our borders. As innovation in the space continues, the “mobile military” of the 21st-century reminds us that global mobile technology’s applications and potential to improve daily life are widespread and ever-growing.