Dec. 15, 2010 -- For many Americans, the smartphone is a constant source of intel on daily life, from tracking the whereabouts of friends and family to navigating city streets and finding the best price at the mall.
And as early as this spring, the U.S. Army could make iPhones, Androids, Blackberrys and similar devices standard-issue communication and intelligence-gathering tools on the front lines of the world's most dangerous battlefields.
"This is a profound and fundamental change about how soldiers will be able to access and share information," said Michael McCarthy, director of the mission command complex of the Army's Future Force Integration Directorate at Fort Bliss, Texas.
Troops with smartphones will be able to use text messages to more closely coordinate with their peers in the field and commanders at remote locations. They'll also be able to stream real-time surveillance video from overhead drones to more effectively target the enemy, among other advantages, McCarthy said.
While the Army is still ironing out the details of a budget for the program, the benefits are expected to come at a relatively low cost to the military -- and taxpayers -- since the technology is commercially available and doesn't require significant investment for research and development.
The "Connecting Soldiers with Digital Applications" initiative began more than a year ago but is now several months ahead of schedule, officials say. Tactical field tests with the smartphone technology have moved to advanced stages.
In the most recent exercise last week, a company-size Army unit used iPhones while running a simulated checkpoint, conducting tactical raids, and practicing local security sweeps.
"When the soldiers didn't have a handheld, there wasn't a lot of recording or reporting going on. But when they were given a phone, they could take pictures of leaflets that were in the house where they conducted the raid, capture images of writings on the wall that indicated it was an IED cell, and gather biometric data for the opponents they killed," said Col. Marisa Tanner, Future Force Integration Directorate Mission Command Capabilities division chief.
"There was a huge jump in the descriptive reporting and amount of reporting that the soldiers conducted as a team."
Tanner said the enhanced connectivity meant commanders at a remote location could also provide real-time coaching to troops as they navigated tricky situations on the ground.
Still, the technology faces complex logistical, financial and security questions that officials must resolve before there can be widespread distribution of smartphones to all 1.2 million soldiers in the future.
Military Smartphones Could Self-Destruct
WikiLeaks' ongoing publication of secret government documents leaked by an Army private has heightened concerns over how to keep classified information on smartphones protected from electronic interception or capture during an ambush or kidnapping, Tanner said.
"We're very concerned about the security, and we're exploring all solutions," she said. "It's not going to be one silver bullet that's going to fix it, but we are serious about addressing that."
The military has the capacity to set up its own, secure wireless cellular networks and could encrypt data sent from the field, Tanner said. Individual phones could be password-protected or require biometric features -- such as a thumbprint -- to log in.
Other possible safeguards include a feature that would allow phones only to send and receive information from a "cloud," meaning no data would be actually stored on the phone's hard drive itself. "It would just be a brick if you were captured or ambushed," she said.
For phones which need to contain sensitive information, McCarthy said, the military could rig them to self-destruct or be remotely erased if they were to fall into enemy hands.
McCarthy insists the technology the Army is testing -- a broad mix of devices running Apple, Windows, Android and Blackberry operating systems -- is no different from that available to average consumers.
But he acknowledged the military might have to "ruggedize" the devices to withstand often harsh conditions in the field and deploy portable fuel cells or backpack solar panels to help recharge batteries on the fly.
"We're not committing to one phone model or one solution. We want to be adaptable," he said. "Our approach has been to be device-agnostic and operating system-agnostic."
The first units could begin deploying to Iraq and Afghanistan with the smartphone technologies this spring.