It’s Off the Shelf and to the Battlefield as the Military Increases Adoption of Commercial Solutions

Since before World War II, the conventional wisdom has held that the military leads the way in research and development, investing heavily in technologies that would someday find mass-market applications. The Jeep, GPS, computers, and the beginnings of the Internet are all examples of innovations conceived by or for the military that ultimately found their way into the hands of consumers.

Our company, Motorola Solutions, has had a storied role in this process dating back to 1940, when engineer Donald Mitchell recognized the strategic value of “mobile” communications for the military and developed the “Handie-Talkie,” a handheld two-way radio designed “to follow man in combat.”

While there’s no doubt this way of procurement still happens, in recent years the flow of technology seems to have reversed.  At a recent panel discussion in Washington, Brig. Gen. Michael Williamson, the Army’s assistant deputy for Acquisitions and Systems Management, related exactly how things have changed.

It used to be, Gen. Williamson said, industry would come to him to sell their latest innovation, but in today’s era of troop drawdowns, reduced budgets and shorter product lifecycles, more often than not, Williamson and his colleagues are looking at existing, off-the-shelf commercial solutions … and asking industry to modify them for military use.

“How do we take advantage of some of the great technologies that are out there and apply them in a military sense?” Williamson asked during the panel discussion.

There is perhaps no area where that question is receiving more attention than in wireless communications. Everything is going mobile. Today, most 18-year-old recruits reporting for basic training carry more computing power in the pocket of their civilian clothes than in the backpack they will be issued for duty.

While command centers and forward operating bases are in many ways miracles of modern war-fighting technology, individual soldiers on the battlefield often lack access to communications and data applications that civilians take for granted. Mapping, satellite images, streaming video, text messaging and networking apps are all commonplace on the streets of every American city and town. But infrastructure and security concerns mean they are still not widely available for the military.

To address these challenges and put smartphones in the hands of more soldiers, there first needs to be network infrastructure. Mobile solutions that are solely dependent on proprietary networks will never be suitable for widespread use. And solutions that only work on public networks will be of little use on the front lines of combat, unless our soldiers have the flexibility to be tethered to handheld radios or portable private networks.

Then, and perhaps most importantly, mobile technology for the military has to be secure. Commercial devices don’t have the capability to meet the government’s minimum security requirements. Voice and data can be compromised at both ends of the transmission and while in transit. This is especially challenging when working off a public network.

Finally, even as the Pentagon sets standards that will eventually allow more commercial off-the-shelf mobile devices on its networks, it will need to secure the wireless transmission of sensitive information from secure mobile devices to secure wired networks.

Meeting these specific challenges will require innovation and creative thinking from both the military and its private sector suppliers. Motorola Solutions recently introduced the AME 2000 Secure Mobile Solution. It combines a commercial-off-the shelf (COTS) device based on the Android operation system with hardware and software to provide end-to-end encrypted voice and data communications through private or public wireless networks to support the missions of federal agencies.

As numerous news stories have recently shown, mobile security is not just a military concern. The mobile devices carried by civilian government officials and corporate executives — especially those who travel abroad in certain regions — are increasingly targeted by hackers. So we should expect that the secure systems developed to meet the needs of the military will eventually be of great interest to public-sector officials and private-sector executives.

Ironically, in answering Gen. Williamson’s challenge to apply great commercial technologies for the defense community, these re-engineered solutions, such as strong encryption for increasing device security and special mobile apps to support military operations, may find their way back to the private sector.

The paradigm from the “Handie-Talkie” era may have changed, but it hasn’t completely reversed. Rather, innovative technology now flows both ways in a dynamic system that benefits all users.

Gary Schluckbier is the director of Secure Systems for Motorola Solutions and led the team that developed the AME 2000 Secure Smartphone for defense and civilian government agencies.

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