The Defense Department’s release of a new mobile device strategy late last week provides a revealing snapshot of how much work lies ahead for Defense officials in rationalizing the rapid adoption of smartphones, tablets, and mobile devices across the Department. It also highlights the urgent challenge to secure the use of those devices on Defense networks – even if it fell short of describing how and when DoD planned to tackle ongoing security concerns.

While the new strategy is seen as “a huge step forward,” as Jeff Sorenson, former U.S. Army/G-6 CIO and now partner at AT Kearney, sees it, it also also reflects the continuing gap that exists between DoD’s ability to integrate commercial mobile technology compared to other, faster-moving organizations.

The new Department of Defense Mobile Device Strategy “will have an impact on every element of Defense Department IT, from the Pentagon, to posts, camps and stations around the world, to the tactical edge in the battlefield,” said Warren Suss, president of Suss Consulting.

“The payoff includes significant enhancements in operational efficiency and effectiveness, but there’s lots of work to do before commercial mobile devices can deliver the type of robust, secure, global connectivity the Department requires,” he said.

For starters – and the strategy document acknowledges as much – commercial smartphones and tablets ultimately offer a more cost-effective solution than pursuing DoD’s traditional course of developing custom hardware and software applications. The strategy document also establishes the essential role commercial mobile technology will inevitably play across DoD’s many operating domains as commercial operating systems from Apple, Google, Research in Motion, Microsoft and others continue to roll out new innovations into the marketplace far more rapidly than the DoD can.

“This strategy is not simply about embracing the newest technology – it is about keeping the DoD workforce relevant in an era when information and cyberspace play a critical role in mission success,” said Defense Chief Information Officer Teri Takai (pictured above) in a cover letter that accompanied the strategy.

“Many of the individual services,” said Sorenson, “have been experimenting with the use of mobile devices to meet critical mission requirements, from tactical operations in theater to delivering telemedicine, to managing logistic movement and inventory on a worldwide basis. Establishing a strategy whereby everyone begins to develop, deploy and secure mobile capabilities across DoD will provide immense benefit to joint operations, both from a warfighter perspective and from the business enterprise viewpoint as well,” said the retired three-star Army general.

The goals and objectives laid out in the public-release of the strategy, however, remain so broad and undefined that it would appear Takai may have succeeded in clarifying the Department’s focus when it comes to mobile technology, but made only limited headway internally in rationalizing it’s actual use.

Takai outlined three primary goals in the strategy, which are sound on the surface, but reflect many of the underlying challenges she faces at DoD:

1. Advance and evolve the DoD information enterprise infrastructure to support mobile devices. That will involve working with industry to manage spectrum and bandwidth and establish a mobile device security architecture. This effort – to improve wireless infrastructure and support secure video, voice and data access via mobile devices – has been an ongoing initiative for years.

The news last week that Lockheed Martin won a $4.6 billion 7-year contract to provide worldwide DoD telecommunications and network support and security might appear timely and promising. But with the inevitable protests and transition issues expected to distract attention, it’s hard to imagine much will actually happen anytime soon and why DoD’s move to a more enterprise-wide, mobile-enabled future will likely to take years to accomplish.

2. Institute mobile device policies and standards. There’s no question, DoD needs to streamline and standardize its approach to managing mobile devices and platforms and improve interoperability. And establishing those policies and standards can be accomplished.

But as Takai herself lamented at an industry forum last month, sponsored by TechAmerica, the impact of mobility is a major challenge. “We have more than 50 pilots…in you-name-the-environment,” she said. And those are the mobile device tests she knew of. Getting the services to agree on such standards is going to take more than a few well-honed policy memos.

3. Promote the development and use of DoD mobile and web-enabled applications. Here DoD needs to work hand in hand with the Defense Information Systems Agency and even GSA, as well as with industry, to identify and provide the tools and processes for developing, testing, certifying and distributing applications in much faster cycle times. It also means that DoD needs to focus greater attention on standardizing the architectures used on the back-end to enable DoD’s information and network systems to support mobile devices and web-enabled content.

Takai has one several things going for her in issuing the strategy document, however.

One is the release of Federal CIO Steve VanRoekel’s Digital Government Strategy on May 23 which provides a more specific roadmap on how other federal agencies – facing many of the same issues – should plan to adopt mobile devices and the development tools for creating and certifying mobile applications.

While DoD serves a different set of stakeholders, the basic premises outlined in Takai’s strategy document “are the same as those for the Digital Government Strategy,” said Rick Holgate, who supported the Federal CIO’s office as co-chair of the Federal Mobility Strategy Task Force. Holgate is assistant director for science and technology, and CIO at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms & Explosives.

“Much of the DoD strategy focuses on the ‘shared platform’ elements of the Digital Government Strategy, but one could also do a direct crosswalk between the two documents,” he said, noting the similarity between the Digital Government Strategy’s action item 9.1 and DoD’s Goal 1, Objective 3.

“While the level of their focus is slightly different (the DoD document tends to be much more technical, and the Digital Government Strategy more philosophical), they share the same fundamental tenets of being smarter about the ways in which we buy, deliver, manage, secure, and support customer-facing services for a mobile, digital government,” he said.

Another factor in Takai’s favor is the maturing nature of FedRAMP, the Federal Risk and Authorization Management Program, which is making traction with the concept of certifying once, using often. While the program is aimed more at cloud computing, it is likely to be a model that will help accelerate the adoption of mobile applications across agencies as well.

Finally, Takai – or her successor – is likely to benefit from the budget pressures that are ransacking Defense domains, and forcing the services to share platforms and policies like never before.

In many regards the new policy is a direct response to those pressures in outlining a Defense mobile application development framework and certification process designed to foster a lower cost, faster delivery approach for bringing mobile technologies to the warfighter and support personnel.

This story was updated on June 19 to incorporate additional observations from Jeff Sorenson and Warren Suss.