Current European soldier modernisation programmes : a widely different approach

With the on-going operations in Afghanistan, to which today many European nations provide combatants in numbers to fight the Taliban in the name of democracy and better tomorrows, the burning question is : how much today’s Soldier Modernisation Programmes will improve the operational capabilities of the various armies which are currently dreaming about them or already testing them. A lucky few are even on the brink to resort to these advanced programmes in combat. Like France’s FÉLIN already deployed at regimental level and soon to equip part of France’s 4,000-strong expeditionary forces – Task Force La Fayette – in Afghanistan.

1st Jun 2010

With the on-going operations in Afghanistan, to which today many European nations provide combatants in numbers to fight the Taliban in the name of democracy and better tomorrows, the burning question is : how much today’s Soldier Modernisation Programmes will improve the operational capabilities of the various armies which are currently dreaming about them or already testing them. A lucky few are even on the brink to resort to these advanced programmes in combat. Like France’s FÉLIN already deployed at regimental level and soon to equip part of France’s 4,000-strong expeditionary forces – Task Force La Fayette – in Afghanistan.

For basic budgetary motives and military rationality, about all the current soldier modernisation programmes rely on existing in service assault guns – FAMAS for France, HK G36 for Germany, SA80 for the UK, M16/M14 for the USA, etc. Only for the while did the Italian Army decide to resort to a new assault rifle : the Beretta ARX160.

From the gun up, all present Soldier Modernisation Programmes encompass all what is necessary to improve individual combat capability and marksmanship : advanced sight systems for day and night combat, personal radios, GPS and mission computer, down to body armour protection, tough eyewear and special clothing destined at reducing the soldier's visual, radar and infrared signatures as well as providing personal temperature control and environmental protection ; in short more comfort and resilience. Clothing have built in wires or a type of wireless technology such as Bluetooth to interconnect the components of the system and allow for full NCW operation. In general, an integrated helmet provide adequate ballistic protection and an interface to other elements of the battlefield network, like a helmet-mounted display depicting battlefield situation, the wearer's position, positions of friendly and hostile troops and equipment and prioritised targets, as well as the downloaded imagery from his weapon sight. A real video world among sweat and blood !

Test ground Afghanistan

Let’s take a cursory look at what is brewing now in terms of true soldier modernisation programmes in Europe. Obviously the route followed by countries like Great-Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Spain or Switzerland is quite contrasting and even the lessons learned, both from operational testing in the field or during actual combat operations are conflicting sometime. With, for many, a seldomly avowed offset view at downsizing their combat force, or even reducing ultimately their national efforts by providing less troops to ‘men-eating’ US-ran operations – like in Iraq or Afghanistan -- and thus to ultimately save national lives and, most of all, the hard cash swallowed by overseas military operations. The most recent bad political experience being, in the Netherlands, the fall of the governement to very unpopular losses of Dutch soldiers’ lives in Afghanistan and to the prevailing operations there. Obviously, over the coming months, other European nations now facing huge budget deficits on account of the U.S.-exported economic crisis will be impacted too and will have either to pull out or to make up for a decline in soldiers provided to a heterogneous coalition by rigging out the rest – the true combatant – with better war fighting tools. Just one figure cited recently by NATO intelligence expert, and former Bundeswehr captain, Michael Hellerforth : only 10% of German troops dispatched to Afghanistan are actually warfighters ! In fact, in Afghanistan today the Europeans are fighting a war “à la carte” with each one of them, along the lowest common denominator, affording to the theatre the minimum of men with most of the time some of the best hardware available for fighting the asymetrical combat imposed by the insurgents.
Today all current soldier modernisation programmes have one common aim dictated by NATO doctrine, that is : “increasing capabilities in the lethality and effects, protection and survivability, C4I, sustainability, mobility, training and logistics fields”. Although all Western nations started with about the same objective, their accepted realisations have been quite unalike, to say the least ; and todays’ grunt is still far away from being turned everywhere into a robotic warrior !

France alone in the field

While the U.S. Land Warrior and the German Infanterist der Zukunft (IdZ) have already been deployed for evaluation, the first integrated programme which is being thoroughly fielded today is the French FÉLIN (Fantassin à Équipement et Liaisons INtégrés). FÉLIN is the result of a political will to enhance France’s infantry. It is the fruit of constant effort aimed at creating an integrated system of new technologies (i.e. information and communication technologies, optronics and GPS) to enhance the efficiency and survivability of soldiers in combat. It can be said that FÉLIN is offering the most complete and advanced dismounted soldier integrated system in Europe today.

In November 2009, the order for a first batch of 16,545 systems notified by the French procurement agency DGA to Sagem Défense Sécurité -- the FÉLIN prime contractor -- brought the grand total to the 22,588 systems initially planned, enough to equip four battle groups on the base of four regiments per year. The first French Army regiment should receive its systems before this coming summer, two more units being also earmarked to collect their new gear this year, and the deployment to Afghanistan of a FÉLIN-equipped unit should happen by the turn of the year.

FÉLIN is an integrated soldier system characterized by component modularity and mission versatility. It is the largest soldier systems ever to be deployed reckons its creator. And, abbuted on the FELIN’s core system, Sagem is now promoting several open architectures from federated, partly, or fully integrated solutions, and all support services : logistics, training, life cicle support. Sagem has also produced several equipments and systems from FÉLIN : such as the WASP gun turret for Panhard’s VBL and PVP vehicles and other specific items for the VAB and VBCI infantry combat vehicles. FÉLIN is set to change drastically combat methods once it is fielded for good and each soldier receives the adequate training in order to use the system to its full potential.

Prior to delivery of series equipment, between February and July 2009, a tactical evaluation period allowed the French Army units to test the system with all its weapons and in various configurations in the harshest possible environments (the hottest, dryest, coldest and most humid). The campaign took place in mountainous terrain, in the jungles of French Guiana and the deserts of Djibouti, where the army tested out also its NBC equipment. Daytime and nighttime tactical firing was carried out at the Larzac Camp in France. Finally, in June, FÉLIN was brought to the CENZUB at Sissone to test the system in urban warfare conditions. The tests represented a master stroke for the French military actors involved in FÉLIN which initial studies were carried out as part of a survey, launched in 1993 by the DGA, involving many French defence contractors. The results allowed specifications to be drawn up seven years later in 2000. As a result, substantial design work forms the basis for FÉLIN all of which contributed to the relevance and credibility of the system as it appears today. In March 2004, the program entered the industrial phase: following a call for tender, Sagem (Safran Group) was awarded the contract for the FÉLIN system by the French Ministry of Defence. To date, three French Army’s infantry units have thoroughly tested FÉLIN -- the 13th Bataillon de Chasseurs Alpins, the Régiment de Marche du Tchad and the 8th Régiment Parachutiste d’Infanterie de Marine. In addition, légionnaires from the 2nd Régient Étranger d’Infanterie were also able to test the future info-centric combat systems during a live exercise in October 2008.

As Laurent Barraco, director of the FELIN programme with DGA puts it : “all the last test campaigns have highlighted: the coherence between the system and its equipment ; its ease of use and ergonomics ; its powerful optronics (designed to engage a target within the weapon’s range) ; the shear autonomy of the Lithium – Ion batteries (24 hours) and the quality of its NBC protection – a point too often left aside”. Other positive results recorded by the DGA include astounding around-the-corner firing capabilities in urban warfare (where soldiers can shoot without exposing themselves) ; the benefits of image transmission in contacting command echelons ; and finally a true continuity between the infantry transport/support VAB armored vehicle and the SitComDé (terminal information system for the dismounted soldier) C2 equipment for the section leader. The current “version 1” FÉLIN integrates a whole range of technological innovations that provide the soldier with enhanced efficiency and protection. This includes an “around-the-corner” sighting system, a new GPS-equipped radio to communicate in confined spaces or in open terrain, uncooled infrared sights providing soldiers with nighttime combat capability and new protective material. With respect to the FÉLIN optronic systems, sights or imagers, all can be used to transmit images to upper command echelons. Sagem has also worked extensively with the military and the DGA to provide FÉLIN with sophisticated ergonomics like the control panel on the FAMAS rifle, which allows the soldier to use the radio and sight while keeping both hands on the weapon. The FELIN-equipped soldier is also capable of operating collective weapons, namely the MBDA short-range Eryx anti-tank missiles launcher.

The total value of the FÉLIN soldier modernisation programme, including development, engineering, production and initial support, amounts to approximately one billion euros. The programme also provides Sagem with new skills, namely the ability to meet the needs of armies wishing to modernise all or part of their land forces or infantry. The French company is now capable of supplying a fully operational system within six months.

Only minor adjustments, mostly linked to the general ergonomy and man-machine interfaces, came as lessons learned before mass production started; all others regarded minute details. Technically, both intensification and especially thermal systems enjoyed success among soldiers, as well as the dismounted soldier’s battlefield management system, however the advent of such devices might require a doctrinal adaptation in order to fully exploit the system’s wide capabilities. A first spiral increment is already underway for the FÉLIN: due to interference problems with frequencies assigned for commercial use, the RIF (Réseau d’Information du Fantassin) radio will be replaced by a next generation system known as RIF-NG. It will operate on different frequencies, the current ones being 830-862 MHz, although it has not yet been decided if the new radio will privilege range, thus reducing frequencies, or throughput, thus increasing them.

The protracted British approach

The British approach to the soldier modernisation programmes was heavily influenced by ongoing operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. This led to a series of Urgent Operational Requirements (UOR) aimed at providing soldiers with interim solutions especially in terms of sighting systems. The future infantry soldier technology (FIST) programme is being managed by the dismounted close combat integrated project team at the UK Ministry of Defence Procurement Agency at Abbey Wood, Bristol. Thales UK was selected in March 2003 for the assessment phase of the FIST programme. The two-and-a-half-year assessment phase will investigate the options in technology, methods, and processes. Under FIST, the infantryman's SA80 assault rifle will be fitted with an enhanced sighting system on the weapon or linked to the soldier's helmet mounted sight. The FIST programme is still in early speculative development and the scope of the design, in concept, performance and content continues to evolve. 35,000 sets of FIST kit are expected to be procured and the systems will be deployed by the British Army, the Royal Air Force Regiment and Royal Marines. In September 2009 the UK MoD announced the signature of what is known as FIST Increment 1A, FIST standing for Future Integrated Soldier Technology: this segment includes the Surveillance and Target Acquisition (STA) equipment and was assigned to Thales UK. It includes Qioptiq FIST Thermal Sight (FST), an improved version of the VIPIR-2 with infrared laser pointer and close-quarter battle (CQB) red dot sight, 4,111 FTS being acquired. Elcan Canada will provide 10,835 Specter OS4X lightweight day sights. Image intensification will leverage on systems already acquired such as the Maxikite2 and Common Weapon Sight (CWS) which will be upgraded by Qioptiq and equipped with the CQB sight supplied by Shield Ltd. An Olympus camera and a handheld periscope by Uniscope Optical Systems of Israel complete the equipment set which first tranche, sufficient to equip a brigade-size unit, will be delivered by November 2010 while delivery of the full provision which will equip a total of 95 companies will end by July 2014. Increment 1B, which will provide a first level of C4I to the soldier, is awaiting approval at MoD level, a contract being forecasted within 2010. The overall Increment 1 should achieve Full Operating Capability by 2017. The next step, Increment 2, will also be split into two components, an enhanced C4I which will allow synchronisation of all fighting platforms and battlegroup organic, and an STA component able to fuse all information and inject them into C4I graphics. Together with Increment 2 a new individual weapon should be issued, as part of the Soldier System Lethality programme. These programmes should run between 2015 and 2020. FIST will enter service between 2015 and 2020. But will it be ? Especially after the Tories announced new Strategic Defence Review ?

Infanterie der Zukunft (IdZ), COMFUT and IMESS

While the French Army is apparently satisfied with its integrated sights for the FAMAS assault gun, which include day and night capabilities, on the other side of the Rhine river, building on the G36, EADS Defense and Security and Rheinmetall are vying together as a team to get a Bundeswehr series contract going beyond the 196 IdZ Basissystem kits ordered at the end of 2007. However following extensive tests carried out in Munster, the Bundeswehr decided to scrap the planned VideoVisier system of the Heckler & Koch G36 assault rifle, which was intended to provide a full target acquisition capability to the soldier. Technical setbacks and weight considerations were at the base of this decision, which showed that loads remain a major issue for today’s dismounted combatant, and therefore it was decided to avoid loading the soldier with equipment which would be used only in very specific situations. The Bundeswehr then shifted from an integrated system towards a fully modular system. Such an approach allows also for weight reduction as well as for cheaper upgrades should some new technologies appear to improve performances or reduce weight in some of the aiming suite devices.

The Bundeswehr initial choice was for keeping the current x3 G36 optics, with an option for a x4 Zeiss sight, adding a clip-on image intensification for night vision, the Carl Zeiss Optronics NVS600 which adds about 1 kg to the rifle, while “round-the-corner vision” and firing is being provided by the Aimpoint Concealed Engagement Unit (CEU), which adds another 0.2 kg. As reports Italian military expert Paolo Valolini : “this equipment will not provide the baseline soldier with a target acquisition capacity,this role being given to a single member of the infantry team. The system to be acquired is still uncertain, the choice being between two Vectronix products, the Vector 21 Nite day/night binocular or the Moskito day/night target acquisition unit, while the bigger and more expensive Jena-Optronik Wärmebildbeobachtungsgerät (WBBG) binocular thermal imager and target acquisition system is being taken out from the squad level equipment to go up at platoon level”. The modular approach is extended to the protection and clothing system. Texplorer developed a new suite of items, including the Swout cooling vest which provides blunt trauma attenuation and is integral to the SK-1 ballistic protection, a higher protection level being provided by the SK-4 vest and adds-on. A modular carrying system has also been developed in two versions, one optimised for the coming Puma tracked armoured infantry fighting vehicle which will be first provided to the Bundeswehr mechanised troops, and to light infantry units in a differently fitted variant.

Last May, finally EADS Defence & Security was commissioned by Germany’s Federal Office of Defence Technology and Procurement (BWB) to deliver a further 220 units of the Future Soldier System (Infanterist der Zukunft) in its basic version (IdZ BS). This is part of an immediate procurement measure to meet the needs of the Bundeswehr forces deployed in Afghanistan in the context of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) mission. It means that another 220 Bundeswehr soldiers will be supported by the tried and tested soldier system for mission preparation and execution. This new delivery will raise the Bundeswehr’s total number of IdZ BS equipment sets to about 2,500. An IdZ BS system for equipping an infantry squad (ten soldiers) consists of an identical basic configuration for all soldiers (including modular bullet-proof vest in protection class I to IV, C4I equipment including NaviPad for situational awareness and transmitting messages, target data and images, night vision device, tactical radio) and various special items (such as laser range finder, camera, thermal image sighting device).

The system entered service with the Army, Navy and Air Force back in 2004 and has since proved its worth on the Bundeswehr’s foreign missions. It offers soldiers not only protection but also highly increased capabilities in terms of command and control, navigation and weaponry. In view of the increasingly asymmetric threat situations arising and the challenges presented by missions within the context of network-enhanced operations, enhancing effectiveness, assertiveness, protection and rapid and secure information exchange via more powerful information and communication systems for the deployed infantry forces is of ever greater importance.

Following Germany two other European nations are developing their own Soldier Modernisation Programmes, also based upon the EADS C4I system. Spain has launched its COMFUT (Combatiente Futuro) in the mid ‘90s and in late 2007 the first 12 systems were delivered for field testing. The COMFUT is being developed by an industrial team under the leadership of EADS Defence and Security España, and includes other Spanish companies such as Amopack, Indra, GMV, Iturri and Fedur. While Amopack provides the energy module, currently based on Li-Ion batteries, Indra Sistemas is responsible for sensors, the main one being the weapon sight mounted over the Heckler & Koch G36 assault rifle. The sight includes an eye display, a TFT display on top of the module, a laser rangefinder on the right, a magnetic compass and a tilt indicator. Adds-on in the form of a thermal sight or an image intensifier can be mounted in front of it. A Liteye LE 750A ruggedized head mounted display connected via a wireless system allows the soldier to see and shoot behind the corner. Voice and data link is provided by modified ITT Spearnet radios, while C4I man-machine-interface which also shows navigation data provided by the COMFUT navigation system comes in the form of a Cobham Soldier Data Terminal (SDT). Following field trials in 2008 and 2009 at the Infantry Academy based in Toledo where 36 prototypes were stressed in combat-like conditions the COMFUT has entered the final definition phase which should bring to the system optimisation and the subsequent pre-series production. No date was however announced for this phase while the Army did not confirmed the original scheduling which called for a first batch of 3,000 systems in 2011 and a second batch of 6,000 COMFUT at a further date. How much the Spanish economic crisis will impact the COMFUT will probably become clearer next Summer?

The Swiss IMESS (Integriertes Modulares Einsatzsystem Schweizer Soldat) programme seems also at risk, the current armament programme awaiting a prior decision on the future fighter which should replace the current F‑5 Tiger II fighter of the Swiss Air Force. If the decision will favour the plane acquisition it is highly probable that the IMESS will be dropped for fund saving reasons. The Swiss programme’s prime contractor is EADS Defense and Security, which leverages on the experience acquired with the Spanish COMFUT, while the second major player is Sagem Sécurité Défense which provides improved versions of its electro-optical sensors adopted by the French FÉLIN programme. The prototyping phase, which started in November 2007 with the signature of a €120 million contract worth with EADS has come to an end and the lessons learned led to a series of improvements which should be adopted on the 100 pre-production systems that will be used for field and qualification testing. The contract for this further phase was signed in fall 2009 and testing should start in 2011. An order for some 5,000 systems is then expected, if political and financial reasons will not lead to different decisions.

Soldato Futuro : Italy’s choice

As mentioned earlier, the only European Soldier Modernisation Programme which includes a newly developed assault rifle is currently the Italian Soldato Futuro, the Beretta ARX160 rifle having been tested not only in country by various units but also in Afghanistan, some 50 rifles having served there for about two months. Following feedback from the field the weapon was subjected to some slight modifications, most of them lined to ergonomic issues, and a first batch of 800 rifles has now been ordered by the Italian Army; this order is not part of the Soldato Futuro programme, as some items are being acquired as separate pieces they can live on their own, a solution which not only allows an earlier fielding but also permits to spread the programme cost. Another item which is being acquired separately is the new NC4-09 ballistic vest; developed by the Army and the Land Armaments General Directorate, this modular system provides when all components are used a higher protection level, IV against IIIA, and a greater protected surface, compared to the previous AP/98. Moreover it allows to distribute the weight between the shoulders and the hips, thus increasing comfort. As for the remaining components, mainly the C4I suite and the optronics, the 30 pre-production systems now available have been tested in the second half of February at the Infantry School after having been subjected to an upgrade with some innovations following a first test run in September 2009. These will be soon delivered to a digitisation test unit that will carry on a test at platoon level before giving the green light to the production of further 62 systems for company-level testing. Interfacing with the Freccia wheeled IFV and other digitised vehicles will also be tested. The Italian MoD intends to order a first batch of 1,583 systems to equip two infantry regiments which should get the equipment in late 2011-early 2012.

Up north, Norway and Sweden are also designing their own Soldier Modernisation Programmes as the Normans with Thales and Markus with Harris, Finland and the Netherlands also are expecting to look for a modernisation solution and will likely look at what choice has been brought to bear by other NATO nations.

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