An Air Force aircrew member holds an iPad that will replace bulky manuals, charts and other references they used to take with them during missions. (Photo illustration by Val Gempis / Air Force)
The BlackBerry monopoly in the Air Force is cracking. Air Force Space Command announced this month that the integration of other mobile devices, starting with Apple, will be able to connect to Air Force networks, letting some airmen use iPhones to check their work email and take iPads out on the flight line.
"We are a mobile Air Force, we have airmen on flight lines and in cop cars," said William Marion, the chief technology officer for Air Force Space Command. "The question is how do we continue to empower them with the right tools and capabilities."
The first rollout will begin with Space Command, Global Strike Command, Air Mobility Command and Air Education and Training Command. Executives can use iPads for briefing documents and speeches, maintenance airmen can use them on the flight line for checklists and tasking orders and flight crews can use them to hold flight maps, Marion said.
The devices will have officially sanctioned applications that can be used on the job and have capabilities such as a camera for a maintainer to take a picture of a part they will need, he said.
"The vision is to equip airmen with the right device for the right mission. … You don't want a full [computer] tower you have to lug out to the end of the flight line; you'd rather pull out a 7-inch tablet," Marion said.
The iOS integration is a followup to the growth of iPad use in the service. Some executives already use iPads to hold documents, and some flight crews are using them as an electronic flight bag. Last year, Air Mobility Command began its purchase of up to 18,000 iPads for flight crews and trainers.
What's new, however, is that these devices will be able to connect to official Air Force networks, Marion said.
"Before now, the only mobile devices anybody could use and get official Air Force email was BlackBerry," Space Command spokeswoman Lt. Col. Brenda Campbell said. "Now, we've gone through all the security requirements to connect a different type of device."
For AMC, the tablets could replace 30 to 40 pounds of paper manuals, navigation charts, checklists and other documents. And now that they can connect, the iPads can automatically update these documents and, in case they are lost, the Air Force can remotely wipe the information to prevent it from getting into the wrong hands, Marion said.
Also, he said it is not "BYOD" — bring your own device. Right now, the infrastructure can only handle up to 10,000 government-owned devices. So an airman can't connect with a personal device.
And for most, the devices would be held in an office and checked out to maintenance and flight crews as needed, Marion said.
Air Mobility Command said it would spend as much as $9.36 million on iPads. Marion said the cost of the infrastructure program comes from existing funding in an Army/Air Force enterprise contract. For the most part, the cellular service subscription will be the same.
"Much of this is the modernization of existing capability, with additional capabilities added to it," he said.
While many airmen might prefer Android or Windows mobile devices, only iOS works right now. Apple devices got a head start through the AMC flight bag program. In November 2010, the Aeronautical Systems Center's Engineering Avionics Division at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, tested iPads for electromagnetic interference and cleared their use on fixed-wing aircraft.
The rollout will include iPhones and iPads, with decisions left to local commanders based on what's best for the job, Morion said.
"The intent is not to give everyone a single device," he said. "It is to provide the right device for the right mission set … just like we don't give them a screwdriver when they need a wrench."