Smart Phones in Combat

The Information Age has brought any number of changes; one of the most far-reaching has been the advent of “Smart” devices such as Smart Phones. Together with their relatives, the Tablet Computer and Smart Entertainment Devices, they are contributing to a wider “wired world” in ways that would have been impossible to imagine only a few years ago. These smart devices are contributing to a revolution in connectivity and personal data access that is well on it’s way to affecting every facet of society. Smart devices are changing society, and that change will filter into the military in ways that can’t yet be fully appreciated. A nation’s military is a reflection of the parent society, so as the Canadian public adopts a greater degree of connectivity as a matter of course, so too will the military be forced to follow suit. The real question isn’t will the military be affected, but how?

To fully appreciate the impact of these devices it would be useful first to examine the history of smart phones and how they are currently defined. The first “smart phone” was shown by IBM at the 1992 COMDEX tradeshow. By today’s standard it was an extremely primitive device, a simple marriage of a Personal Digital Assistant and a cell phone. The first generation was somewhat awkward; accessing the PDA functions was less than convenient on many models. What that generation did do was plot the basic pattern for basic feature sets and hardware. In years to come the basic pattern would evolve at an exponential rate.

By 2000 the first “modern” smart phones are launched. Ericsson releases the first device running a complete operating system. The Symbian OS marks a change from hardware-driven devices to software. The shift is enough of a paradigm change that one of the defining characteristics of all current “smart devices” is that they run an operating system (OS) rather than being defined in hardware. Microsoft enters the market with a version of its Windows CE platform and Canada’s own RIM launches Blackberry. The smart phone market is now beginning to attract significant commercial interest and investment.

9/11 would offer the first chance for a smart phone to really shine and show its value. RIM’s Blackberry was in widespread use in US Government and business circles on the morning of the attacks. Half of the Blackberry’s success that day was happenstance, at the time Blackberrys ran on a proprietary communication network. As the conventional cell-system and landlines sputtered and collapsed under the load, the Blackberry system stayed up and Blackberry users stayed connected. That connection would have been of little consequence though, except that in the Blackberry the US Government found it had a tool which allowed it to continue to function even as the nation was under horrific attack. Smart phones had found a place at the highest levels of government and business.

In 2007 Apple launches the iPhone with the tagline “This changes everything”. iPhone did change everything, but not because of technology, iPhone brings little new to the marketplace in that regard. What iPhone does change is marketing; it’s not aimed at the elite… Apple has built a smart phone for everybody. Eschewing the standard business model for the segment, Apple concentrates on leveraging their great success with media devices such as the iPod. Instead of spreadsheets and business calendars Apple concentrates on Social Networking and surfing the Web. Following the launch success of iPhone with the release of the iPod Touch, Apple launches the next generation of smart devices. iPod Touch is a smart phone, without the phone. Cheaper, smaller, lighter and running the same operating software as its iPhone sibling, iPod Touch bring smart phone capabilities to those who don’t want a cell phone.

The entertainment capabilities of iPhone and iPod Touch make them ideal personal entertainment devices for soldiers deployed in a combat zone and examples quickly find their way to Iraq and Afghanistan. Having powerful computer capabilities for such small packages leads to other uses, and before long the first “military” applications are being devised. These applications, ‘apps’ in the common vernacular, would range from language translators to ballistic computers for snipers. Their effectiveness is sufficient for the Pentagon to take notice and fund yet more apps, and start examining the ways the smart devices might be of use to a modern military.

Hardware is constantly evolving and gaining capabilities, yet in the smart phone world it’s software that drives innovation.  So what is the state of software development in these diminutive devices, especially as it affects military adoption?

There are currently three major operating systems for smart devices;  Android, iOS and Windows Phone. Each has its own particular strengths, and weaknesses. There is also a fair measure of commonality in capabilities. Military operations, at war or peace, are most often conducted at the ‘corners’ of the performance envelope. Software capabilities are most common in the core areas, so it’s the corners that will set one software family apart from the others. The following sections will examine three of the major software families in greater detail, as well as explaining why Windows does not garner the same attention.

Windows Phone

Windows Phone has the smallest market share of the 3 major OS’s. That alone would warrant exclusion from further detailed examination, but there is another factor. Windows Phone is part of the Microsoft (MS) product line. MS has garnered a great deal of negative attention, and subsequent development, by detractors, of various types of ‘malware’ such as viruses and other inimical software. Whether the negative MS attention is warranted or not is immaterial, it exists. That would tend to increase the risks of operating a MS Windows Phone device in any critical application.


Android is the product of the Open Handset Alliance, backed by Google and other major hardware and software developers. Android is a cross-platform OS, meaning it can run on a variety of manufacturer’s devices. At present Android has the backing of some 80 companies, including most major hardware developers. Android’s one great weakness, in military terms, may be its marketability strength. Android is ‘Open-Source”, meaning that the source code for the Android system is readily available to anyone who wishes it. Such open-source developments mean that Android should mature faster than its competitors due to the involvement of numerous developers, but also increases risks in software. Vulnerabilities should be spotted, and corrected, faster… but there is a risk in a potential hostile power having too good an understanding of the basic software parameters.

Android currently is optimized for smart phones, but versions which offer better support for both personal smart entertainment devices and tablet computers are appearing. Indeed, several companies have released devices in these categories running Android. The software supports all major hardware, as expected, in the segment. Android is also supported by the Android Market, where a rapidly expanding library of apps is available to customize an Android device.


Apple’s proprietary iOS software runs only on Apple’s own devices. At present this encompasses iPhone, iPod Touch and the iPad tablet. All devices run a closely-related version of the same software, currently version 9.1. iOS has been designed to support a highly intuitive operation, fully supported by a touchscreen interface that lacks physical buttons for most operations. The limiting of physical buttons makes iOS devices easily protected in a variety of cases which have limited weak points due to a need to actuate physical controls. Some of these cases have proven themselves in combat, such as the Otterbox Defender, chosen as the case for Knight’s Armament Bullet Flight ballistic computer. Some cases have achieved an acceptable degree of ruggedness, as defined by military or civilian standards, to achieve various certifications in this regard.

Apple’s choice to market to consumers, rather than corporate or governmental elite, has also resulted in a large number of accessories being made by third-parties for various iPhone, iPod Touch and iPad models. These accessories cover the gamut of possibilities from simple protective or decorative cases, inductive battery chargers, extended battery backs to full GPS add-ons which provide full GPS capabilities to the iPod Touch (which would normally lack it). The GPS extension also provides greater accuracy as it does not rely on the typical a-GPS technology found in smart phones. Because all devices run the same basic OS, there is little in the way of training or familiarization that would be required when running an app on one family member or another.

iOS’s greatest weakness is a lack of security in some aspects of data transmission. Designed as a consumer product, it lacks features which would protect data end-to-end. How much of a debilitating factor this would be would depend on how the device was to be used.

Military Applications

“Amateurs talk tactics, professionals talk logistics” Napoleon Bonaparte

The increasing flow of data in a modern military environment has increasingly taken on the characteristics of logistics. A modern military can generate so much data that it is no longer feasible to rely on older distribution methods entirely, and this will only become exacerbated as more advanced systems come online. Data Logistics, the routing of the right data, to the right user, at the right time is becoming critical. This is a trend that started with the Enigma intercepts in World War Two; the routing of threat assessments based on Deutsches Kreigsmarine signals was a major contributing factor to staving off defeat in the Battle of the Atlantic. By comparison, the Pearl Harbor attack, and 9/11 showed what happens when the flow of data is interrupted. The RN attack on Taranto Harbour had shown that an anchorage such as Pearl Harbor was vulnerable and the decoded Japanese intercepts had clearly shown that something was coming, yet the information flow was not complete… with disastrous results. The aftermath of 9/11 showed us that information sharing had again failed, with similar results.

Smart phones, and other smart devices, can close one of the major remaining gaps in the data logistics chain, the flow to and from the end user.

Smartphone applications already exist that impinge on human sexuality and run all the way to ballistic computers to assist snipers. From dating to death, there’s an app for that.



15 year veteran of the Canadian Armed Forces. I now write to let the thoughts in my head get out where I can see 'em. :)

Posted in Canadian Forces

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Canadian ~ American Strategic Review

CASR has announced that it will cease operations on 31/December/2016.

I have grateful to have been given the opportunity to write for them, and to repost my material on Defence Muse.

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