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Countries racing to develop Digital apps for giving military the warfighting edge

Recent growth and advances in mobile computing and communication have revolutionized the way we live and access information. Today we are able to receive and process a vast amount of real-time data and situational information on mobile devices in a manner that has not been witnessed previously.


US Department of Defense (DoD)’s  Mobile Defense Strategy, called for creating “a highly mobile workforce equipped with secure access to information and computing power anywhere at any time for greater mission effectiveness”. The DoD strategy pointed out that the advantages of using mobile technology in the field were potentially huge: the ability for personnel to access mission-critical information in the field and to provide a more agile response to a changing tactical situation.


Mobile apps can significantly improve agility by placing applications, processes and information directly into the palm of your hand but optimized for each user’s role. And defense departments around the world are fast realizing that mobile apps technology can be as helpful in A&D as it is in nearly every other industry.


Digital apps are set to redefine the battlefield as the UK Defence Secretary announces a £30m boost to fast-track agile software development technology. The funding will spark a step change in the development of application software for the Armed Forces and allow the rapid adaption of the state-of-the-art technology to be used in extreme environments, from natural disasters to the frontline.


The crucial technology will also give the military the warfighting edge they need to outpace adversaries and combat emerging threats, allowing those on the ground to demand responsive software that can visualise and automate secure, critical information, tailored to their mission, anywhere in the world.


Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson said: From major natural disasters to the frontline on the battlefield, our Armed Forces are quick to react and even quicker to adapt. This technology matches that agility by enabling the creation of specialist digital applications that are tailored, secure and responsive.


US Pentagon has been advancing the development of a software that uses smartphone sensors to continuously monitor health. A new app is being created for the Pentagon to keep track of a soldier’s health on the battlefield. The software will harvest data from cameras, light sensors, pedometers, fingerprint sensors, and other sensors to make its evaluations. The technology recruits smartphones for the continuous, passive health, and readiness assessment. Funded by secretive weapons development agency DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency), the military technology is likely to become publicly available in the not too distant future.


“Currently, understanding and assessing the readiness of the warfighter involves medical intervention with the help of advanced equipment, such as electrocardiographs and other specialized medical devices, that are too expensive and cumbersome to employ continuously or without supervision in non-controlled environments,” explained DARPA Program Manager Angelos Keromytis, MD.


The USAF has already delivered 18 tailored applications to support planning, command and control functions at its Air Operations Centers. Further applications are being explored in budgeting and acquisition, cyber defence and logistics. Whilst the approach is initially expected to provide tools to support decision making and command and control, the initiative could be rolled out to other disciplines, such as cyber defence, logistics and medical support. “On the other hand, currently 92 percent of adults in the United States own a cell phone, which could be used as the basis for continuous, passive health, and readiness assessment,” he said.


Android Tactical Assault Kit (ATAK)

Although it was originally created for the military, ATAK currently has a user base that extends well outside of the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD). According to the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL), which pioneered ATAK, a version of the application is used in non-military operations such as law enforcement, event security, forest fires, or hurricanes. Today, the application has 40,000 Department of Defense (DoD) users – including users representing the Air Force, Army, Special Operations, National Guard, the Departments of Justice (DOJ), and Department of Homeland Security (DHS) – as well as 32,000 nonfederal users, and 100 licensees.


Mapping – ATAK allows its users to navigate and mark points of interest on a map. It also provides team awareness by displaying every member of a team’s location in a common operating environment and on a single pane of glass.

Messaging – utilizing ATAK, team members can send chat messages to groups and individuals. They can also utilize symbols that can be dropped on the map for others to see and respond to. This can help increase collaboration and coordination and ensure that everyone is on the same page.

Geofencing – ATAK can deliver alerts to a group or individual when they have moved into sensitive areas or other areas of note. If a warfighter is about to move into range of friendly fire, or a firefighter is about to cross the fire line into dangerous territory, ATAK will alert them so that they can course correct.


According to the AFRL: “Using ATAK, operators can view the location of other operators and potential hazards, a major advantage over only relying on hand-held radio transmissions for communications and awareness. ATAK can be downloaded to a phone, tablet, or handheld device. It can be projected onto a large screen in a conference room, attached to an operator’s forearm, thigh, or chest for hands-free use. This technology informs users with up-to-the-second situational awareness that becomes critical in high-stress, hazardous environments.”


Warfighters are often deployed in areas with no available terrestrial communications infrastructure. Mobile mesh networking can be an exceptional way to deliver connectivity to smartphones that are off-the-grid. Utilizing mobile mesh networking nodes – devices that connect physically or via Bluetooth to smartphones – connectivity can be delivered into the field to ensure that all team members can communicate and keep track of each other.


One of the most exciting aspects of ATAK is its relative open-source nature and the fact that it’s always being improved and expanded upon. There is an entire, active community of application developers in the military and with defense contractors that are innovating new features and capabilities for the service and releasing them as plug-ins. There are also new releases and versions of ATAK coming out constantly, delivering an improved feature set and experience for users.


Israeli Military Launches Radical New WhatsApp Alternative

Now IDF, the Israeli military, has launched a new messenger that replicates WhatsApp’s features but improves upon its security. Unlike other such military platforms, IDF’s “operational chat” has been designed to mimic the mainstream messenger, to be just as intuitive—put simply, it is intended to look and feel just like WhatsApp, not like a highly classified operational platform to disseminate real-time intel to frontline troops. But it’s a WhatsApp lookalike on which users can safely and securely discuss real-time terrorist incursions, enemy positions and planned strikes.


“Its user experience,” an IDF spokesperson told me, “which is much like WhatsApp, builds upon soldiers’ knowledge and experience using their own mobile phones.” The new messenger “allows for intelligence and operations to transfer immediate classified information to the field and for soldiers in the field to transfer real time information back to HQ. The information is quick and exact and reaches all relevant bodies in real time.”


The launch of this new “operational chat” is part of IDF’s ongoing digital transformation—it’s cloud-based and designed to put user experience first. Brig. Gen. Ziv Avtalion, Commander of IDF’s Digital Transformation Administration, told me this was part of his efforts to change the culture, to ensure that soldiers were able to shift from everyday smartphones and apps to military machines seamlessly, “to get information to soldiers while they fight against the enemy, not keeping it in headquarters, bringing them the advantage to win the battle.”


“Since we wanted the chat to be comfortable and intuitive,” I was told, “operational chat is a kind of IDF WhatsApp—it works similarly to WhatsApp, with groups, contacts, search engines, the ability to attach photos, and, in the future, we will add classified video calls, voice recordings and mapping abilities. These are significant operational abilities.” The platform also includes subject-specific channels, “much like Telegram.”


Mobile Decision Support Systems (MDSS)

A new class of decision support systems (DSS) known as Mobile Decision Support Systems (MDSS) have evolved that can be very beneficial to a range of application domains where complex and critical decisions are made under time pressure, decision-makers are on the move, and the environment is dynamic and uncertain. Examples include mobile healthcare, emergency management, mobile policing, mobile commerce and mobile banking.


Access to up-to-date information and data on mobile devices can significantly enhance DSS and support mobility of decision-makers by accessing and/or analysing data where and when it is needed the most.


The aviation and defense industry is also fundamentally mobile – it’s probably the industry that invented the concept – not only in the transportation of troops and supplies but also the maneuver and relocation of forces, troops or entire bases. Current IT infrastructure essential for the day to day running of all military operations often includes a complex set of legacy systems with communications hubs, in fixed locations. This requires large amounts of space, logistics and maintenance, is costly and lacks agility.


By deploying this technology into the hands of our military, from sailors serving in the Caribbean, to pilots working in the Middle East, we will ensure we have a fighting force fit for the future, equipped with state-of-the-art technology at their fingertips.


The new approach, championed by Joint Forces Command, will allow defence specialists to create and tailor applications rapidly to meet an operational commander’s requirements, assure its robustness and security, and deploy it on military networks in a matter of days.


As a mission evolves and changes, the application will be able to be adapted and changed to keep step with the demands of the operation.


The capability, dubbed PREDA – Platform for Rapid Exploitation of Digital Applications – is similar to the technology being introduced by the United States Air Force (USAF) and US Marine Corps, which has already seen direct benefits from putting modern applications and decision support software directly in the hands of the war-fighter, when and where it is needed.




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