The United States Marine Corps has just upgraded its main indirect fire allocation system to use a commercial, off-the-shelf computer. The Target Handoff System is a suite of hardware and software that allows Marines to identify and localize targets, then call in artillery or air-delivered fires on them. It includes a video downlink system, binoculars with laser rangefinder and integrated compass that can feed their output directly into the system, and a laser target designator. All of the components are tied, through a ruggedized computer, to a data-capable radio.
THS is a highly effective system that gives Marines a quick and accurate way to deliver supporting fires on anything they want flattened. Unfortunately, it comes at a high cost in weight. The complete system weighs about twenty pounds, not a beast on its own, but it’s a significant extra burden when added to armor, water, rations, ammunition and personal weapons.
Now, the USMC has made it a lot more user-friendly by replacing the computer element with a Samsung Tab 2. This is a $400 Android tablet with an 8-inch screen. It weighs less than ten ounces and is the size of a very thin paperback book.
The new Tab 2-based THS weighs only ten pounds, and as well as slashing the weight by half, it cuts the price in half as well. On top of that it’s familiar technology that most Marines will be able to intuitively grasp, simplifying training, and it’s also easy to adapt in the future – if a role needs a larger or smaller screen, just replace the Tab 2 with a larger or smaller Samsung tablet.
There are all sorts of reasons for replacing military computers with commercial ones. Bespoke defense computer projects have a well-deserved reputation for delivering substandard products that are obsolete the day they enter service and can’t be upgraded. When the British Army introduced its BOWMAN data radio system, all HQs were equipped with User Data Terminals – ruggedized laptops designed to tie into the data net. Unfortunately, the procurement process took so long to finish tinkering with the design that, when they were issued, they were barely capable of running the latest version of the ComBAT battlefield information software. They also, for some bizarre reason, used OpenOffice instead of the British military’s standard, MS Office. Worst of all, there was no way to upgrade the hardware so it could run all the apps it needed to; the systems had been designed to be fanless, so if faster processors were installed, they quickly overheated. In the end, the Army replaced most of them with off the shelf Dell laptops.
Obviously there are some issues with using commercial computers, too. The BOWMAN User Data Terminals are waterproof, dustproof and EMP-hardened – Dell laptops are not. One nuclear strike within a few dozen miles, and they’ll all be fried. There’s also a USB issue. The UDTs have a custom USB interface that prevents users plugging in their own hardware or USB drives, making it very difficult to accidentally introduce malware or deliberately steal data. The Dells use standard USB. On the other hand, up until a nuke goes off, the Dells do actually work. With a UDT, it could easily take 20 minutes for the system to grind its way through adding a new overlay to a map.
No doubt the USMC will find that their shiny new Tab 2s are easier to break than the old mil-spec computers, and they’ll also be tempting items for thieves, but the upside is they’re cheap to replace. Most important of all, they’re a major step towards reducing personal loads, which are a huge and ongoing problem for all dismounted troops.