When Marines are in a firefight in Afghanistan
and need back up, they call in helicopters to blast the enemy from
the sky. Sounds simple enough, but it’s not — according to current
standard operating procedures for close-air strikes, ground troops
radio coordinates to a pilot who then has to rifle through 60 to 80
pounds of maps to find the building he’s supposed to hit. Radio
signals cut out, coordinates get jumbled and, even with half a grown
man’s weight in maps in the cockpit, sometimes the pilot doesn’t
have a detailed image of the target area. But this may all change
The Marines recently took a baby step towards a
more efficient future when the 3rd Aircraft Wing bought 32 iPads.
The total purchase — not quite $20,000 worth of tablets and
accessories, according to Defense News — was merely “a hiccup in the
grand scheme of defense spending,” a former deputy G-3 for
operations pointed out. But it could be a crucial advance in aerial
Capt. Jim Carlson, a Cobra pilot in a Marine
Light Attack Helicopter Squadron (HMLA), is responsible for piquing
the interest of his higher-ups. He was annoyed with the current
communication system so he decided to mess around with his personal
iPad, which he discovered could be digitally linked to troops on the
ground. All 80 cartographical pounds could be easily uploaded to the
device and manipulated like any other map app — broad area maps
hyperlinked to detailed sections.
The brass was wary when they first heard what
Carlson and his fellow pilots were up to at Camp Bastion in Helmand
province. They weren’t sure if a commercial product was secure
enough to handle in-combat transmissions (though only non-classified
maps were being stored on the devices). But about a year later, the
brass appears to be on-board — at least on a trial-basis — and the
commanding officer of HMLA-267 told Defense News that iPads have
sped up communications by about 15 minutes during close-air
missions. Now ground and air can simply confirm they are fingering
the same building on their tablet and fire.
Tablets are not new on the military scene — air
controllers have been using them for several years now. But these
devices are the dinosaurs of the evolutionary timeline of tablets.
Military officials have been pushing for the incorporation of
updated smart devices in combat situations, but no real progress has
been made as of yet. Maybe the Marines’ $20,000-gamble will be a
If iPads are as effective in aerial strikes as
hoped, it’s easy to imagine that helicopters will soon be fitted
with tablets or, more likely, a similar system will be mounted on
their control panels.
The innovation curve would likely be pretty steep
in the military tablet realm just as it is in the consumer market.
Software developers have already come up with a variety of apps
geared toward military efficacy, including a few that can
differentiate friendlies from insurgents, and Darpa is hard at work
on a way to keep smart devices powered-up during lengthy missions.
It’s nice to know the military is learning to
navigate with devices and apps like the ones my friends and I use to
zero in on, say, a coffee shop we’ve never been to. Now we just have
to make sure the Department of Defense restricts access to Angry
Birds and Pocket Frogs during missions.