Soldiers’ Wearable Computers May Get an iPhone Brain

(WIRED)  Smartphones are all the rage in Army circles, as top generals talk up the prospect that only a few technical fixes stand in the way of a soldier having an iPhone or an Android phone as part of his basic kit. But don’t expect the Army to scrap the suite of wearable computers, cameras, radios, GPS and digitized maps it’s spent years developing just because a phone you can buy at Best Buy makes its functions redundant.

Photo: Spencer Ackerman

Like a superhero designed by Rob Liefeld, that system, called Nett Warrior, snakes cables around a soldier’s body armor to network him with his unit or headquarters through an array of computers and peripherals. It adds between 12 to 15 pounds to his load. But the biggest challenge to Nett Warrior comes from the phones soldiers carry in their pockets — when they’re in civilian gear, that is.

“Every kid’s going down to whatever local store they want and they’re buying some smart device and saying, ‘Well, this is modern, and it lets me know where I am, where my friends are … it gives me all that capability, how come I can’t get that?’” acknowledges Brig. Gen. Peter Fuller, the officer in charge of outfitting soldiers with all their standard gear, who oversees Nett Warrior. “We’re trying to figure out: How do we move Nett Warrior from its current configuration?”

Fuller’s shop, PEO Soldier, will send Nett Warrior — the son of an earlier, failed program called Land Warrior – into “full-rate production” around June. But to some in the Army, it already smacks of outdated technology. An Apps for the Army contest last year proved there are amateur developers in the service, ready to design Army-relevant functions for the Apple Store or the Android Market.

Accordingly, defense companies are creating apps of their own for tracking or mapping. Gen. Peter Chiarelli, the Army’s vice chief of staff and an iPhone enthusiast, told Danger Room in February, “we can already see the benefit for the squad and team leader” of smartphones.

A program within the Army’s Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC), called Connecting Soldiers to Digital Applications, is running parallel to Nett Warrior in thinking through how iPhones and Droids can be most useful to the Army. The officer overseeing it, Lt. Gen. Michael Vane, told’s Christian Lowe point blank that “smartphones could be the answer to the Nett Warrior requirement.”

During a roundtable on Thursday with reporters at his Pentagon office, Fuller is sympathetic to a lot of that. Yes, smartphones are cool; yes, they’re a lot lighter than Nett Warrior; and no, they don’t have a ton of cables sticking out to entangle a soldier on dismounted patrol.

His solution: Marry the two together. Maybe take out the computer that serves as Nett Warrior’s brain “and give you a smart device” instead, he says when Danger Room asks him about smartphones and Nett Warrior’s future.

“We need a program to work from,” Fuller says, “and we’re saying Nett Warrior is that program. So get it through the milestone, and then you can make all the adjustments.”

The Army still has a way to go with smartphones, as TRADOC officers involved in the smartphone push have acknowledged to Danger Room. It has not decided whether it prefers the iPhone, Android phones or Windows phones. (The open architecture of the Droids might have an edge, though.)

It’s not sure how configure them for a low-bandwidth environment like, say, Afghanistan. And it has not yet figured out how to secure them, so an Android phone doesn’t “tell Google where we are all the time, because we’re tied to GoogleMaps,” as Fuller puts it. Darpa, it’s worth noting, is working on that last part.

Another unresolved question: Should the Army actually issue phones to soldiers, or give them requirements and an allowance, so they can buy their own phones and upgrade as necessary?

Until the Army resolves all that, it’s going to be some time before smartphones are as much a part of the Army as the M4 rifle. The drawback is that it might spend millions on Nett Warrior as a stopgap measure that practically has to be  replaced as soon as it’s complete.

Fuller, who’s leaving PEO soldier for a tour in Afghanistan, argues that the best way to getting smartphones into soldiers’ pockets is to incorporate them into Nett Warrior. But he’s up front about the frustrations of the program. “I tell people, we are at the one-yard line, in our red zone,” he says. “And everyone’s looking at the cheerleaders and going, ‘Hey, I like what they got over on the sidelines.’”

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