The Army is twenty years and a half-billion dollars into a star-crossed effort to build custom communications and digital mapping gadgets for its soldiers. Special Operations Command, on the other hand, is taking a simpler approach: they’re planning to use Android phones.

Last week, the SOCOM asked coders to create a suite of applications for keeping commandos linked up while they’re out on missions. The software should include chat functions, file transfers, video display and “multi-touch whiteboarding aka John Madden tool.”

SOCOM calls it the Tactical Situational Awareness Application Suite, or TactSA, and it’s got to work in low-connectivity areas — the middle-of-nowhere places you’d expect to send the military’s most elite troops. It’s got to be peer-to-peer, encrypted “at the application level,” and able to recover from “network outages and substantial packet loss.”

But rather than go the Army route and custom-build hardware, SOCOM is happy to use off-the-shelf gadgetry. It’s the software that interests them more. “Due to the shift in commercial hardware to mobile, battery powered systems,” the solicitation reads, TactSA has to work on “lighter devices that utilize the Android operating system.” Special Operations Forces currently have video, mapping and other data tools that run on Windows platforms, but the command is guessing that’s not where the mobile market is going.

A different option for TactSA would be to wait until the military works out the hardware and picks out an operating system. As Danger Room reported yesterday, the Army is going to award a contract next spring for Nett Warrior, a seven-pound bundle of wearable computers and radios. But even if the prototypes designed by competing defense contractors Raytheon, General Dynamics and Rockwell Collins work as planned, it’ll be years until Nett Warrior is out into the field. Similarly, the Army is hoping to maybe trickle out within a year or so a handful of soldier-developed apps for smartphones. But with special forces operating at intense paces in places like Afghanistan, that’s not time elite troops have.

One benefit of using Android-run devices is that Android keeps its source code open. If special operators find that the TactSA functions don’t quite meet their needs, they could conceivably design their own. James Patrick, a young special-ops veteran, learned in Afghanistan that it can be hard for analysts to sift through a sea of incident reports to find precisely the data needed to plan a mission. So he and some of his special-operations friends started a Texas-based firm called Aptus Technologies that develops something called the Threat Action Program, a data-mining program that displays search terms in a word cloud for analysts to parse.

Source: Spencer Ackerman for Wired News.

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