Do commercial electronics threaten military security?

As demand increases, experts warn about devices that aren't up to military specs

The U.S. military is acquiring greater quantities of commercial electronics and software to keep its forces connected. But this growing reliance on non-ruggedized gear is raising questions about their safety, reliability and security.

A recent article by Military Aerospace highlighted the dilemma faced by the military. Commercial electronics are powerful, plentiful and have many applications prized by warfighters, such as information sharing and streaming video. While these capabilities are a definite benefit to troops, the very same contractors providing the systems are noting that commercial technology acquisitions should be approached with forethought and caution.

The story cited the example of a recent solicitation by the U.S. Army Mission and Installation Contracting Command at Fort Knox, Ky., for 587 computers with the same or similar characteristics to a 32G Apple iPad with WiFi and 3-G capabilities.

Fed de Gastyne, a federal business development manager with Panasonic, told Military Aerospace that there is a high demand for electronics in military and aerospace applications. However, many of these devices and components may not have passed every military standard test relevant to airborne deployments. “This brings up some huge concerns about ruggedness and security,” he said.

Commercial-grade electronics that do not meet military specifications run the risk of damage or failure in aircraft due to vibration, g-forces and temperature extremes, and mud, dirt and shock damage while on the ground. “If you drop it, it breaks. If it gets hot, it shuts down,” de Gastyne said.

There are also security issues for non-military electronics. Military Aerospace reported that the FBI is investigating a security breach involving Apple iPads, Apple and service provider AT&T. Some 114,000 user accounts, including military personnel and politicians, were compromised.

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But the military’s appetite for consumer-style handheld devices is growing. According to Patrick White, vice president for strategic marketing for General Dynamics Itronix, handheld electronics have evolved from simple wireless telephones to sophisticated mobile computers. He told Military Aerospace that modern commercial mobile devices are easy to use, can run for days without recharging, have customizable applications and provide capabilities such as global positioning, text messaging and streaming video. “The military is looking for similar devices, only rugged enough to withstand the rigors of the tactical environment,” he said.

The military, spearheaded by the U.S. Army, is already moving to close some of the ruggedness and security gaps required to put handheld wireless devices into the hands of warfighters. GCN has followed these efforts such as the Army’s Nett Warrior program, which is beginning to test the use of handheld devices in battlefield environments.

The service is also moving forward to issue smartphones to its personnel in garrison through its Go Mobile program and related efforts, such as Apps for the Army are creating avenues for soldiers to write and publish new applications for military smartphones.

But the exact nature and tactical use of smartphones remains in question. GCN readers have questioned the applicability of using commercial grade devices in the field without considerable ruggedization and security modifications. The Army is currently planning to issue Andriod and Windows-based phones to its troops and it is also examining the possibility of connecting these devices into combat networks in the field via the Joint Tactical Radio System. However, such applications are still works in progress.

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Reader Comments

Mon, Jan 3, 2011 Pete

Hi Henry, Happy New Year. You write for Defense Systems now. Are you still writing for Signal?Pete This commercial grade versus rugged or mil spec grade isn't anything new. The customer always needs to select the grade of product that it needs to fulfill the specific mission. You can't buy something at the electronics store down the street then mount it in a tank and expect it take the punishment; but you can use it in rear eschelon requirements.

Thu, Dec 30, 2010

Civilian toys have a design life cycle of 2-3 years, because the carriers use them as a profit center. You can't make the price points needed for 'disposable' handsets and such, and meet the 810 mil specs. If, like most of the world, devices were sold without service, then the user got service on their own, they might be willing to pay for mil-spec hardware that would last more than 2-3 years. But since they get 'free' hardware from the service provider, they won't pay it now.

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