Tying the hands of a person who is speaking, the Arab proverb goes, is akin to "tying his tongue." Western soldiers in Iraq know how important gestures can be when communicating with locals. To close, open and close a fist means "light," but just opening a fist means "bomb." One soldier recently home from Iraq once tried to order an Iraqi man to lie down. To get his point across, the soldier had to demonstrate by stretching out in the dirt. Translation software could help, but what's the best way to make it available in the field?
The U.S. military in the past would give a soldier an electronic handheld device, made at great expense specially for the battlefield, with the latest software. But translation is only one of many software applications soldiers now need. The future of "networked warfare" requires each soldier to be linked electronically to other troops as well as to weapons systems and intelligence sources. Making sense of the reams of data from satellites, drones and ground sensors cries out for a handheld device that is both versatile and easy to use. With their intuitive interfaces, Apple devices—the iPod Touch and, to a lesser extent, the iPhone—are becoming the handhelds of choice.
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."