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France Deploys Network-Centric Ground Platform

June 2004
By Henry S. Kenyon

 
 
Designed for use on medium-size vehicles such as trucks and personnel carriers, SIR is built around the French army’s standard very high frequency radio. Acquisition plans call for purchasing 700 to 1,000 SIR-equipped vehicles. 
Situational awareness application forms core of future theater and tactical information grid.

A European army’s battlefield digitalization initiative has reached maturity with the wide-scale production of a networked command, control, communications and intelligence system for its mechanized forces. The equipment provides commanders with a near-real-time representation of the theater of operations and marks the location of all known allied and enemy forces on a digital interface. It also allows units such as infantry, artillery, armor and attack helicopters to share information to enhance situational awareness and reduce decision-making time.

Many nations are actively pursuing network-centric capabilities to coordinate ground and air units. This is especially true for Western European countries, where the need for interoperability extends beyond national militaries to regional coalitions such as NATO. Aside from the immediate benefits of a networked military, the widespread use of battlefield information systems also permits allied forces to work together in a variety of missions—from combat to peacekeeping.

The regimental information system (SIR in French) being deployed across the French army is an example of the ongoing trend toward interoperability. Now entering full-scale production, SIR is a vehicle- and shelter-mounted command, control, communications and intelligence (C3I) system designed to support battalion and regiment-and-below units.

A part of the army’s modernization program, SIR permits users to plan and direct combat units in a theater of operations in near real time, explains Antoine Coursimault, head of C3I programs for the European Aerospace Defence and Space Company’s Defense and Communications Systems division (EADS DCS), Paris. EADS DCS is responsible for the development, production and installation of SIR.

SIR can connect all allied units in a network and, by coordinating the operations of various forces such as ground troops, vehicles and helicopters, can accelerate commanders’ decision-making time and overall operational tempo. The system’s interface allows officers to see the location of all friendly and known enemy forces on the battlefield. The display facilitates communications between users, and it provides the status of any unit queried by listing its fuel and ammunition levels. Coursimault notes that this capability supports enhanced logistics capabilities because those forces most in need of supplies can be identified, and resources can be diverted to them.

Coursimault believes this tracking ability is an important feature because it ties logistics planning and support into the network. Observing that the French army has suffered from bottlenecks in the supply links between front-line units and rear-area logistics bases, he adds that it is in the best interest of customers to integrate the entire logistics chain seamlessly into the army’s battlefield networking infrastructure. One solution is to optimize logistics chains for an expected battlefield situation to get the right amount of material to where it is most needed. “The problem is that, when logistics are not fully integrated, people tend to overbook—to ask for too much,” he says.

SIR is built around the Thales CPR 4G very high frequency (VHF) radio. The radio can transmit data and voice, but SIR’s current version does not have a datalink. However, the system will migrate to an Internet protocol backbone to overcome bandwidth limitations. “We clearly see that communications is a kind of bottleneck. This system communicates with all its neighbors, so it contributes to the tactical situation and helps a captain give orders to his fighting unit,” Coursimault says.

The system forms the heart of the French army’s battlefield digitalization program. He explains that SIR is designed to provide a core C3I capability that can be expanded as new technologies become available. It also is designed for flexibility and stability because during an operation users are connecting to and disconnecting from the network constantly. This changing situation requires the network to function under conditions that are very different from fixed, landline systems.

According to Coursimault, the French Armaments Procurement Agency (DGA) has contracted with EADS DCS to produce an additional 131 command post vehicles, 230 light SIR kits designed for use by army captains and 35 mobile units for use in vehicles or in field shelters. The DGA has ordered approximately 441 SIR-equipped vehicles and has asked EADS to upgrade 78 light and heavy command post vehicles. Some 100 SIR units already are in service in training schools and in two brigades.

Coursimault notes that, depending on future budgets, the French army plans to equip from 700 to 1,000 vehicles with the system. The firm integrates the SIR hardware and support systems such as air conditioning and power generators. The equipment also will be installed in the new generation of infantry and multimission vehicles under development for the French army.

The system connects to a Thales-manufactured brigade-level C3I system and is designed to provide a number of horizontal and vertical connections between different echelons and various types of units, such as artillery, combat engineers, logistics and attack helicopters. It also can connect to heavy armored units such as battle tanks and fighting vehicles through embedded terminals, and plans are underway to develop an airborne command post aboard an MS-90 aircraft, he says.

SIR originated from a proposed networked command and control system presented to the DGA in the early 1990s. Coursimault explains that the original proposal involved companies such as Matra, which has since merged with EADS. The development contract was awarded in the late 1990s, and a production contract was issued in December 2000.

A new version of the SIR software package is already in development. The program calls for continual upgrades throughout the equipment’s life cycle, but software development is moving faster than hardware modernization for a variety of reasons, he says. One difficulty is modifying commercial hardware to meet military specifications. “I maintain that there is still a ruggedization problem. COTS [commercial off-the-shelf] is nice, but it is sometimes only a small percentage of the cost,” Coursimault observes. He adds that U.S. and coalition forces in Iraq had great difficulty operating equipment such as commercial personal computers in the desert.

Future versions of SIR will feature a fully software-upgradable system. EADS engineers are developing a more flexible communications interface for use on the equipment. Coursimault explains that the first production versions had hardware communications servers, but these are now being replaced with less expensive software-based systems.

Such software-based schemes also permit more flexible connections to other types of communications applications. Citing the example of the CPR 4G, which is the French army’s standard VHF radio, Coursimault notes that, although it is resistant to jamming, it cannot easily connect to commercial networks. Some types of operations, such as peacekeeping, require units to access less military-specific communications systems after troops have settled onto their bases. The software-based server will allow greater flexibility to access these networks, he says.

SIR recently concluded a successful series of interoperability exercises for the French army. The goal of these tests was to evaluate the equipment’s ability to function with command, control and communications applications used by the army’s different branches. The equipment also was tested with NATO systems. Coursimault asserts that interoperability between NATO ground units is difficult and could stand improvement. Because the nations use different data models, it is not enough to connect systems with radio links. “If a French captain sends an order, his German counterpart must understand the intent behind the message,” he says. A NATO working group is trying to harmonize these various data systems, but native interoperability without gateways is still a long way off, Coursimault observes.

EADS is developing a lightweight, portable family of manportable data terminals and tablets called Impact. This equipment provides users with a digitized map of the battlefield and a VHF link to transmit and receive SIR network data. Impact is designed to extend C3I capabilities down to light vehicles such as jeeps and dismounted infantry. “If SIR is an arm, this system is the fingers,” he says.

The German army is evaluating Impact and SIR for its future soldier programs. Coursimault adds that an EADS-manufactured C3I system for the German army is a close cousin of the SIR system. Called Faust, it is being used in peacekeeping operations in Afghanistan and Kosovo. He notes that EADS is trying to align these various products to promote interoperability and flexibility for customization.

Although SIR is designed for European operations, it has export potential. Coursimault explains that the system can be adapted to the specific needs of national armies. Because combat vehicles are ubiquitous in many of the world’s armed forces, the equipment could be embedded in a variety of units, he says.