Want to buy a battle-tested communications system with more technological sophistication than the British Army's new Bowman? Take a trip down to Carphone Warehouse...

My personal mobile is a Nokia N95, and it is quite a stunning piece of technology (full of British know-how - ARM chips + Symbian huzzah!). It is, however, short on battery life, insufficiently rugged and insecure when measured against the requirements to use on operations by the British Army. That is where the comparison between the N95 and the (relatively) new Bowman communications system ends.

Bowman units have a number of other useful features, such as data rates of up to 0.5MBit/s (on the vehicle gear only), comparing well with 14.4MBit/s from HSDPA devices (the N95 only goes up to a miserly 3.6MBit/s). Both the N95 and Bowman gear includes GPS, but Bowman also doubles up as a close quarters weapon, as the user is able to inflict radiation burns at short range or use it to bludgeon the enemy. The N95 is too light, small, and low power for that. Security features also include not being able to hear the other user unless within three miles, even with another Bowman unit (a shorter shouting range the average Sergeant Major). By contrast, 3G devices operate at a range that is clearly poor security. Finally, while 3G protocols may claim to be secure, with encrypted voice and signalling traffic (unlike Clansman, the Bowman predecessor) Bowman uses frequency-hopping and spread spectrum to avoid interception and radio-direction-finding giving away a unit's position. For added security, battery life means that units on operations are leaving them off until in direct contact, instead making use of civvy radios bought in Argos (they even do a value 4-pack for £49.99). Bowman has cost something like £2Bn so a few quid here and there to augment it won't go amiss.

With all these great features on Bowman, one can imagine the enthusiasm with which these units are being greeted. Actually, thanks to Lt Col Nick Borton speaking in front of the Telegraph, you don't have to imagine. For some reason they aren't too happy. Bowman is apparently known as 'Better Off With Map And Nokia'.

At this stage you may well be wearying of my sarcasm and wondering if I had a point beyond sneering at a communications project that has terminally failing to deliver. Well, I do, and it is this. Procurement processes need to start making use of open standards and architectures, and make use as far as possible of mainstream civilian technology. Forty years ago it may not have been the case, but now it is simply not possible for military R&D budgets to compete with their commercial counterparts. Standard components may not be perfectly suited to operations, but as it turns out neither are the bespoke ones. In fairness, the Bowman concept dates back to 1989 and a lot has happened since then. However, as long as procurement happens in this top-down non-standard lengthy and costly manner that died a death long ago everywhere else, it will put lives at risk in the armed forces and NHS, and put other things at risk elsewhere.

Oh, and by the way, I'm not blogging about the lost memory stick or bank details sold at an online auction, because it just gets me irritated. Sorry. However, if you want to ignore the topic and put comments about that instead, do feel free.

About the author

Thoughts on membership, the profession, and the occasional pseudo-random topic from the BCS Policy and Community Director.