Newest weapon of war–the handheld

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Newest weapon of war–the handheld By Pui-Wing Tam, The Wall Street Journal Online When the USS McFaul lobbed Tomahawk missiles into Afghanistan recently, an unlikely new weapon was on board: the Palm hand-held computer. About half of the Navy destroyer’s 300 or so crew members carry the Palm V. Sailors can download e-mails and access the ship’s Plan of the Day by plugging the gadgets into one of the 32 infrared ports in the ship’s mess halls, passageways and berthing areas. The devices already hold software to conduct ship inspections and perform other tasks. “We’re in the 21st century now and need devices that make it easier to transfer information and to communicate,” says Commander Terry Sutherland of the public affairs office of the Commander Naval Surface Force, U.S. Atlantic Fleet, which includes the USS McFaul. Everyone from globe-trotting executives to soccer moms has adopted hand-held devices in recent years. Now, as the U.S. enters its third consecutive week of military strikes in Afghanistan, the pocket-sized gadgets are increasingly being used as logistical and tactical weapons to gain an edge in this modern war. Many soldiers and sailors brought their devices–mainly Palms and devices from Handspring that use the Palm operating system–from home, but other models supplied by the military have been waterproofed, fortified to resist extreme temperatures, sealed against dust, and designed to withstand four-foot drops to concrete. Manufacturers of the more specialized equipment, including Symbol Technologies, Holtsville, N.Y., and Paravant Computer Systems, of Palm Bay, Fla., use Palm’s and Microsoft’s Windows CE and Pocket PC software platforms. To make the devices more versatile, an arsenal of software–including programs that promise to map enemy locations, track personnel and conduct heat-stress surveys–is being developed by the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center, as well as by third-party vendors such as Warrior Solutions Inc. “The Army has said it very clearly: We are trying to provide our soldiers with information dominance,” says Rick McNeight, president of Paravant, which has produced three new tactical hand-helds for the military and has others in the pipeline. “There’s a great edge in efficiency” because of the devices, says Beth Mason, an analyst for the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center in Chesapeake, Va. The military began buying consumer-oriented hand-helds several years ago, she says, primarily to expedite such tasks such as keeping track of equipment and food supplies. Now the effort has spread, especially as the battery life and capabilities of the devices have improved. The USS McFaul has been designated a “test platform” for hand-held computers, Ms. Mason says. The Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center has even set up a dedicated team of developers to create naval software for hand-held gadgets, and the group has already put together nine new applications. Palm has sold between 30,000 and 50,000 Palms to the Navy and 25,000 to 30,000 units to the Army, mostly in the past year and a half, says John Inkley, Palm’s federal sales manager. The devices are primarily used for data collection and information dissemination, he says. But the capabilities of the machines extend far beyond bookkeeping. Soldiers and sailors also carry the devices into action. Paravant’s pocket-shaped RHC-500 hand-held, made of high-impact plastics and strengthened to endure electromagnetic interference and fungus, can track enemy and friendly troop movements. The RHC-2000, an elongated model designed to fit into the deep pockets of army fatigues, carries encryption keys and can be loaded with missions. A third Paravant hand-held, dubbed the Leopard, can pinpoint targets by interacting with laser binoculars. Paravant’s McNeight won’t say how the Army is using the hand-helds in today’s war, but he confirms that the devices are “absolutely frontline computers that are in the Army’s inventory.” He says Paravant has so far shipped several hundred hand-helds to the Army, with orders pending for another thousand. At Symbol Technologies, executives signed a $248 million contract to supply industrialized hand-held devices to the U.S. Department of Defense in 1999. The two main Symbol models used by the military are the Symbol PPT 2700, a larger and heavier machine than the Palm that has been strengthened with a magnesium frame, and the Symbol PDT 7200, which has a handle jutting out of its bottom. Brian O’Donnell, Symbol’s vice president of government systems, citing security concerns, also declines to say exactly how the military is using the devices. But he notes that the PDT 7200 is primarily a logistics tool to track supplies. Meanwhile, the PPT 2700 can be beefed up with wireless and imaging technology and bar-code scanners to follow the movement of materials and troops. The cost of these hand-held computers isn’t onerous, especially compared with other military equipment. Palm and Handspring machines, for example, can go for as little as $150 a device. Symbol’s 2700 is listed at $1,250, while Paravant’s models are priced between $600 and $7,500, though both companies say that large purchase orders are discounted. But it is the most basic Palm devices that may add the greatest value. Aboard the USS McFaul, there are just a few desktop computers that crew members can use to read e-mail dispatches from family and friends. But those sailors with Palms can download their e-mails onto a hand-held and then read their messages and compose their replies at their leisure. Once the reply is ready, the sailor can simply slot the Palm into an infrared port and send the message off. It’s a “tremendous morale booster,” says Commander Sutherland of the U.S. Atlantic Fleet.

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