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iPhones in Iraq – the US Army's new weapon
In Basra's Hayaniyah district, a notorious stronghold of Shia militias, a US army sergeant leading a patrol faced two suspects in the street. Amid rising tension he produced a gadget from his pocket and after a few minutes of its use the matter was amicably resolved. The Iraqis and the Americans went their separate ways.
The equipment being used – described by the US Army as ideal for 21st-century warfare – was an Apple iPod Touch. In a matter of minutes the soldier had established through words and images that the two men were not considered to be serious threats and detaining them was unnecessary.
Apple's iPods and iPhones, symbols of a modern urban lifestyle, are now in use in a very different setting – the front lines of Iraq and Afghanistan. They are, say the US forces, ideal for the age of "network centric warfare", relatively easy to use, safe with secure software, and far cheaper than manufacturing a military version.
The sheer versatility of the kit – with the capability of over 30,000 programmes – allows a huge variety of functions needed for operations ranging from providing language translations to the transmitting of sensitive information and working out trajectories for snipers. Projects are on the way to use them as guidance systems for bomb disposal robots and receivers of aerial footage from unmanned drone aircraft.
The US Marine Corps is funding an application that would allow soldiers to upload photographs of detained suspects, along with written reports, into a biometric database. The software would match faces, in theory making it easier to track suspects after they're released.
Members of the British military who have seen the Apple instruments in action drool about the opportunities on offer. The Ministry of Defence, however, remains wary of security implications and has "no plans" at present to go down the American path.
But Lieutenant Colonel Jim Ross, the director of the US Army's intelligence, electronic warfare and sensors operation, believes the iPod "may be all that the personnel need".
"What gives it added advantage is that a lot of them have their own personal ones so they are familiar with them," he said.
Another plus is the cost. The iPod touch (which soldiers can use over a secure WiFi network) retails for around $230 (£150) and the iPhone for $600. Bulk orders placed by the Pentagon bring further savings. The manufacture of a specific military model would be much more expensive.
Robert Emerson, a security analyst who has advised foreign governments on computerised warfare, said: "The US military has had a reputation for being somewhat heavy handed, with justice. But what they are doing with iPods and iPhones show they can also be nimble on their feet. Other militaries should learn to be equally open minded."
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