Aussie Special Forces want smartphones for combat

By Julian Bajkowski

Australia’s elite combat forces serving in regions including Afghanistan could soon be issued devices like iPhones and iPads as standard kit for fighting wars as the military looks to give soldiers a digital edge over their adversaries.

The Department of Defence has called for technology suppliers to provide it with ideas on how to connect-up Special Operations troops on the ground using “commercial style” smartphones and tablet computers that can run on the Defence Department’s Secret Network.

Documents released this week say that the Defence is seeking to develop and implement a secure mobile communications system for the Special Operations Command that let soldiers access “a limited set of applications and services hosted on the Special Operations Command Support System (SOCSS) network.”

The move to issue Special Operations soldiers with gadgets that are essentially locked-down consumer devices is a highly significant development because it vividly illustrates how the rapid evolution of everyday commercial technology is outpacing the development of enterprise and military solutions.

A major dilemma for armed forces, which have typically had quite rigid organisational structures in terms of technology, is that enemy combatants now have easy access to cheap and powerful products and systems that simply did not exist a decade ago.

They include smartphone applications like the BulletFlight ballistics calculator that allow snipers – friend or foe – to calculate the best way to get an accurate shot at a target taking into account factors like wind speed, ammunition and distance.

The proliferation of such powerful consumer technology has forced a rethink within the military that has resulted in it increasingly deploying much cheaper modified commercial solutions rather than seeking to develop its own products and technology.

The BlackBerry device has previously been a favourite of the armed forces and government, however new capabilities and the greater number of applications offered for mobile devices running on Apple’s iOS or Google’s Android mobile operating systems have seen choices widen.

The Australian effort to give elite soldiers commercial-style mobile technology in the field is being run under the codename “Project REDFIN.”

The 2009 Defence Capability Plan (DCP) says the purpose of Project REDFIN is to provide a “Networked Special Operations Capability (NSOC) [that] provides an integrated information environment and a range of electronic systems to support the spectrum of Special Operations.

“This capability enhancement focuses on the key requirements of information exchange, information management, situational awareness, decision support and battlespace sensing,” the These systems are mostly light dismounted systems,” the plan says.

The latest documents to industry say the new Special Operations system will provide soldiers with a with a smartphone and tablet computer that lets users “take notes using natural handwriting”  and provide secure voice and data communications “at the SECRET level between users”.

The new system would run on commercial telecommunication carriers for mobile telephone backbone “for normal operations.”

But in areas where “telecommunications infrastructure is non-existent, degraded or destroyed through natural disaster or internal instability” – which presumably covers damage from bombs and bullets – the new Special Operations smartphone system could also run on “a deployable cellular base station system” connected in turn to a wideband defence satellite.”

Defence says the Request for Information period for REDFIN will run from 21st August 2012 to 25th November 2012.

The project is currently unfunded.

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