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Army Eyes Samsung smartphones

by Brendan McGarry on March 28, 2013

The U.S. Army this year plans to begin buying Samsung Galaxy Note II smartphones for some infantry soldiers, pending approval from the Defense Department, according to a program office.

Exactly how many devices will be specified in a production decision expected no later than July, according to information provided by Program Executive Office Soldier, an organization within the Army known as PEO Soldier and responsible for fielding weapons and equipment.

To date, the service has purchased more than 1,700 Motorola Atrix smartphones as part of a retooled acquisition program known as Nett Warrior. The devices can be connected by cable to handheld radios made by General Dynamics Corp. to display secure information, such as troop movements, the location of roadside bombs, even text messages. A brigade in the 10th Mountain Division will be the first in the Army to use the new combat radio system in Afghanistan this spring.

Both the Atrix and the Galaxy Note II run the Android operating system made by Google Inc.

The Army wants to switch to the Galaxy Note II, made by South Korea-based Samsung Group, in part because it has a bigger screen and faster processor for a similar price. The shift reflects the service’s new approach for buying communications equipment, in which it seeks commercial, “off-the-shelf” products that can be modified and tested for military use, rather than spending larger sums of money developing unique hardware.

“Our agile approach includes procuring soldier-evaluated commercial products more frequently,” Bill Brower, deputy project manager for Soldier Warrior, the office within PEO Soldier that oversees the Nett Warrior program, said in an e-mail. The process ensures soldiers receive the latest technology at the lowest cost, he said.

After the program office buys the phones, engineers wipe the devices clean of software and then install custom applications. The handsets’ cellular functionality is also disabled, so they can’t make calls and can only share information via a radio that has been certified by the National Security Agency. The NSA is part of the Defense Department and responsible for protecting government information systems.

The Army plans to spend about $150 million on the Nett Warrior program in fiscal 2013, which ends Sept. 30, according to a January report from the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress. That figure includes $103 million in procurement and $47 million in research and development. The funding is part of the $3.8 billion the service budgeted this year for communications equipment.

Before the service scaled back the Nett Warrior program, it was estimated to cost $2 billion for 74,200 sets of equipment, according to a GAO report from March 2012. The Army estimates it saved about $800 million by restructuring the effort.

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