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Troops may soon see new cell phones and wireless tablet computers issued by commands across the force after the Defense Department's top tech officials on Tuesday issued a long-awaited plan for military use of mobile devices.
The Pentagon's plan will for the first time clear the way for the widespread flow of classified information over wireless cellular networks. And for the first time it will allow classified information to be handled by off-the-shelf commercial phones and tablets.
Defense officials have not selected a specific phone or tablet. Instead, this summer they will formally issue the technical specifications for the security standards that will apply to all four services.
That in turn will open the door for private technology companies to begin developing devices and software for sale to individual commands within the Defense Department. Individual commands will determine which device may be best suited to its individual needs.
By next year, commands may have alternatives to the nearly 500,000 Blackberry smartphones, which have been the primary mobile device for most service members in recent years.
The common standards will help the military to "capitalize on the full potential of mobile devices," said Air Force Maj. Gen. Robert Wheeler, the Pentagon's deputy chief information officer.
The benefits may be extraordinary if commands and companies begin creating applications, distributing them in app stores and rapidly integrating them into the military's daily business.
"We'll see how fast and how far this is going to take us here for jumping up the productivity curve. … That is the piece of the puzzle that is going to take us to the next level … I don't think we know how far this will take us with that aspect at this point," Wheeler said.
These mobile devices are not intended for use in the most volatile operational environments. They will not be used "beyond the tactical edge," Wheeler told reporters at the Pentagon on Tuesday.
Defense officials have begun talking to the companies that manufacture hand-held mobile devices as well as software developers and wireless carriers, offering the military's roughly 600,000 mobile phone customers as a potential prize for the firms that can meet the new security requirements.
One key requirement will be the ability of the Pentagon's technology administrators to remotely wipe out the data on a particular phone in case it is lost or missing. Another key challenge is finding a way for users to verify their own identity, as the do on desktop computers with Common Access Cards, or CACs, and the CAC-reader devices. There are some existing CAC readers designed for mobile devices, but officials hope to develop an alternative that is smaller and simpler.
"The goal is to get away from the clunky CAC reader," said John Hickey, Defense Information Systems Agency mobility program manager.