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Army Apps Rattle Requirements

Requirements creep. Bloated requirements. Overly ambitious requirements. Few things get blamed as often for rising costs and schedule delays to major weapons as  requirements. So imagine an effort by the Big Army that went from idea to fruition in less than three months.

That was the payoff of the Apps for the Army competition, which also overcame historic military reluctance to run a contest and actually rewarded people for doing innovative and effective work. All those lawyers worried about... well, who cares what they worried about since they overcame the obstacles.

OK, we're not talking about designing and fielding a new tank, an artillery piece or a new helo, but this must be the kind of effort that Defense Secretary Robert Gates and his acquisition czar, Ash Carter [pictured], will smile upon as the Pentagon pursues rapid acquisitions that deliver what troops actually need and want.

During a call to announce the winners of the contest, I asked Lt. Gen. Jeff Sorenson, the Army's chief information officer, if he hoped the contest would "usefully undermine" the existing requirements process. "I think I'm into usefully undermining," he replied. "We have a very laborious [requirements] process and the whole point of doing this process was to find out if we could do this without engaging in that process."

Here are the top five contest winners:

Physical Training Program (iOS) helps Soldiers develop their own PT program based on the Army’s new Physical Readiness Training program. The app provides training plans and videos of exercises. Developers are Maj. Gregory Motes, Cpt. Christopher Braunstein and Cpt. Stacey Osborn of the Army Signal Center, Ft. Gordon, Ga.

Telehealth Mood Tracker (Android/iOS) is a self-monitoring app that allows users to track their psychological health over a period of days, weeks and months using a visual analogue rating scale. Users can track experiences associated with deployment -related behavioral health issues. Developers are Robert Kayl, Scott Swim and Robert Van Gorkom of the National Center for Telehealth and Technology, Joint Base Lewis-McChord, WA.

Disaster Relief (Android) is a web-based data survey, dissemination and analysis tool for searching, editing and creating maps viewable on Google Earth and Google Maps. The app assists Army personnel working in humanitarian relief and civilian affairs operations. Clients can be most mobile and handheld devices such as PDAs and smart phones. Developers are Andrew Jenkins and Alex Ly of the Engineer Research and Development Center, Alexandria, Va.

Movement Projection (Android) is a map-routing app for road navigation that allows Soldiers to input obstacles and threats -- in addition to stops, start and end points -- and calculates the best and fastest route. Luke Catania of the Engineer Research and Development Center, Alexandria, Va., is the developer.

New Recruit (Android) provides information for potential recruits. Features include military rank and insignia, Army news feeds, an Army physical fitness test calculator, and a Body Mass Index calculator. Thomas Maroulis of Armament Research, Development and Engineering Center, Picatinny Arsenal, NJ, developed the app.

The Army hopes to start using cell phones with apps as a regular part of the brigade combat in less than a year, Sorenson said. That will mean Android, iPhones, iPads and similar gear on the battlefield, with many of them tied directly into the service's mobile networks. Data will be shared and, perhaps, UAVs controlled using phones. That will come once the phones meet NSA encryption standards, which is already underway.

But I wondered if the contest participants thought the Army really understood what it was doing and believed in it. One of the contest winners, Maj. Greg Motes, said there are "a lot of people in the Army who do get it. At first, there was a lot of skepticism and doubt and some people who asked us, why do you need applications when you've got web-based products." But there's a big difference, he said. Web access for something like checking your bank balance with your cell phone requires 18 steps from login to see the balance. Using an app takes six steps, he said.

This whole approach may spread. DARPA, of course, has been working on an apps library. And Sorenson said he was meeting Thursday with Air Force Lt. Gen. William T. Lord, his service counterpart. He's already spoken at length with Marine Gen. George Allen, director for command, control, communications, and computers.

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