Operation M&M

March 30, 2012
By George I. Seffers, TechNet Land Forces SW Show Daily
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Innovation ruled the third and final day of the TechNet Land Forces conference in Tucson, Arizona, with military and industry experts discussing a wide range of ways warfighters use technology to improve operational effectiveness—even if the operation is a simple search for candy.

Over the course of the last year, trusted computing solutions have begun to be included into mobile devices, said Steven Sprague, the chief executive officer for Wave Systems Corporation. “You can have the same trusted computing capabilities that are in 100 percent of the personal computer assets in your phone assets. We’ve started to see the beginning steps to have a common infrastructure,” he said.

Trusted computing is important, he said, because computer users cannot be trusted. “We have to stop trusting the users. We’re really untrustworthy. If you give us passwords, we can’t remember them, write them down on pieces of paper; we put them in our wallets and engrave them on the back of our phones. We’re really bad,” he said. “We really have to get the humans out of the equation.”

With encryption built into every mobile device, he said, the devices would be safe to lose. “These devices are not safe to lose today. They’re just not. You could build or buy a laptop with hardware encryption embedded in the drive based on industry standards. [This] belongs in the memory subsystem of every phone, because a phone is different. It works all the time, so the data has to be unlocked. You power up your phone, and it unlocks the memory and the operating system—every time,” Sprague proposed. “It works until your phone powers off, but if you lose your phone and the battery dies, it’s become safe to lose.”

Built-in encryption would be much safer than a “wipe” capability in which the phone’s data is erased remotely once it has been lost. “If you find the phone, first thing you do is take the battery out because it’s hard to wipe the phone with the battery gone,” he pointed out.

Sprague also proposed protecting all of the personal data published on social media sites. “Let’s create the new, major, little, government-system-integrated cigarette pack that encrypts tweets. Can I send launch codes or targeting coordinates across Twitter? Sure. It’s just spectrum. As long as the person on the other end has the same little cigarette pack and can decrypt it according to the properly-certified-takes-four-years-to-certify piece of equipment, we’re really good,” he said.

Some companies, including his own, have already developed the capability, he added.

Jim Young, Army account manager for Google, said that while limited spectrum is a concern, he trusts innovators to come up with solutions. “Every time we run into a barrier of any technology, there’s always supposedly artificial limitations,” he said, citing disk drive limitations as one example. “We’ve broken barriers now 10 years in a row. Spectrum is an issue, but technologists and scientists have figured out breakthroughs in storage, networking, computing capacity and so forth. I have faith in our engineers globally to address this problem,” Young said.

Sprague also recommended having phones carried by the public capable of finding other phones in times of crisis. “Go to one of the areas devastated by a tornado. Do we really have to wait 24 hours for the people to show up with the search dogs to look for people who are buried? No. Everybody’s got a radio transceiver on their body. Why can’t we today turn our phones into search mode to locate every other phone? I mean really, why not? It’s been a decade, maybe 20 years, since we’ve clearly had this capability within the devices,” he said.

John Wilcox, chief information officer and director of command, control, communications and computers, U.S. Special Operations Command, agreed that Sprague was on to something. “I would take that one farther and challenge industry. That is clearly a problem set that the services are trying to identify on the battlefield. Obviously, there are not cell phone towers on the battlefield, so we need to have the mesh relay kind of capability. That is a capability we’re looking for. I know there are folks out there doing it, but I want everyone playing in that space. We could make every shooter a sensor, or make them a relay. That’s clearly something we’re interested in,” Wilcox said.

Brig. Gen. David Coffman, USMC, former commander of 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit, also paid tribute to innovation by telling the story of an operation in the Horn of Africa in the summer of 2011, where it was “Africa hot.” The Marine team went ashore and set up tents “in the sticks,” with no running water or other modern conveniences. The U.S. State Department provided a tent with electricity and an air conditioner.

The Marines pooled their resources and purchased a wifi capability at the post exchange on “Camp Lemonade.” They also bought out all of the laptops and purchased mobile phones as well. They set up their own cyber café and were emailing, Skyping, talking to their wives.

Sitting down to eat, Gen. Coffman started looking for the guy—every unit has one—who knows which MREs have the M&Ms in them. He was asking for the “MRE guy,” when a lance corporal spoke up, took out his iPhone and said, “We don’t have that any more, Sir. There’s an app for that.”

“He pushes two buttons,” the general recalled. “And like manna from heaven, he scrolls through every MRE menu, every accessory pack.”

The challenge, Gen. Coffman concluded, is to equip Marines with “relevant, secure, agile communications and command and control systems that replicate and capitalize” on their “familiarity and savvy” in the digital world while still letting them operate in an environment “up to and including close combat with enemy killings.

“That’s it. That’s all we need to do to bring these guys into the future,” he said.