Digitized Infantry Ready for Action

September 2006
By Henry S. Kenyon

The French army’s Fantassin à Equipements et Liaisons Intégrés (FELIN), or integrated soldier system, will provide warfighters with a tactical network-centric capability. Platoon and squad leaders will be equipped with handheld battle management computers that will enable them to receive and transmit maps, data and imagery over the system’s radio network.
Next-generation infantry equipment connects individual soldiers with operational data networks.

The French army soon will issue its troops an advanced suite of technologies that will improve their lethality, survivability and situational awareness. Consisting of an integrated system of communications, sensors and body armor, the equipment will allow small tactical units to integrate into larger network-centric formations.

Built around a modular, multimission concept, the Fantassin à Equipements et Liaisons Intégrés (FELIN), or integrated soldier system, is designed to provide warfighters with the ability to tailor their equipment for specific missions. The system can be configured for a variety of roles such as platoon and section leader, sniper, machine gunner and grenadier (mechanized infantry). Developed and manufactured by Sagem Défense Sécurité, Paris, to meet French Defense Procurement Agency (DGA) requirements, FELIN enhances five core combat functionalities: communication, observation, mobility, lethality and survivability.

FELIN features a new combat uniform and body armor developed to meet NATO ballistic protection requirements, and nuclear, biological and chemical protective gear that includes a filter mask and water supply. The suite provides a helmet that is designed specifically to be compatible with monocular head-up display systems. It also can be fitted with a variety of visors for ballistic protection or for shielding in crowd control situations. “You don’t have to change your helmet. You keep your combat helmet and attach what you need,” explains Berthaud Hugues, a military adviser and technician for Sagem’s research and development division.

The kit includes a helmet-mounted night vision system that consists of a small light-intensifying video camera linked to a multisource video display, a rotating monocle eyepiece and a power and data cord that plugs into the soldier system. The night vision equipment can be adapted to fit most types of military helmets. The monocle and data feed are designed to provide soldiers with real-time video from FELIN weapons sights or imagers. The display also can overlay map data received from the system’s digital radio or show alarms and incoming messages.

A personal communications system comprising two bone-conductive sound transmitters and a microphone fit into a headband worn under the helmet. Unlike traditional earphones, the bone-conductive system does not cover the ears but rather rests against the skin in front of the ears. Sound from the speakers is transmitted directly through a soldier’s skull to the eardrums. Hugues notes that the system allows warfighters to hear voice communications yet continue to hear sounds in their immediate environment.

The heart of the FELIN system is a personal digital radio and a multimedia portable computer. Both items are standard on every variant of the system. The radio can carry voice, data or video transmissions and has a configurable network architecture that hosts multiple subnets for individual squads and soldiers. A voice conferencing feature enables private voice communications on each subnet or open discussions for everyone on the network. The system allows platoon and squad leaders to maintain speaking priority in the event of an emergency and provides a dynamic network management capability.

Another key part of the FELIN kit is a portable multimedia computer designed to manage the radio and global positioning system (GPS), weapon sights, night vision system, sensors and imaging equipment. The computer consists of a power and data management module and a user interface. The module controls power according to operational priority: radio, weapons system, soldier display and remote sighting. An identification card containing user information and the mission profile can be inserted into the computer. The user interface consists of a liquid crystal display screen and navigation buttons.

FELIN’s squad- and platoon-level communications networks are designed to interoperate with the French army’s legacy secure communications system, PR4G. “We had to be compatible with this equipment. They [the French army] didn’t want to change it for something more compact or lighter,” Hugues admits.

The platoon and squad leaders’ equipment includes a battle management system (BMS), a handheld computer featuring a touchscreen. The system links into the kit’s Bluetooth-based wireless network for communications and situational awareness. It enables unit leaders to exchange data, images, video and virtual maps across the system’s radio network. A vehicle-based version of the BMS serves as a link to higher echelons and allows dismounted units to synchronize operations with other forces.

Using the vehicle-based system, platoon or squad leaders can command dismounted troops. Hugues notes that the technology now enables French mechanized troops to have two unit leaders—one who is disembarked and one who remains with the vehicles to coordinate incoming tactical data and to operate vehicle-based support weapons. However, if the tactical situation changes significantly, the vehicle-based crewman can instruct the platoon leader to return to the vehicle to plug the BMS directly into the vehicle-based system and update mission data.

Sagem also has developed an export variant of FELIN that features the capability for squad or platoon leaders to acquire data updates without returning to the command vehicle; instead, the data is transmitted to them directly via a secure radio link. Hugues explains that the French army did not choose this capability because it opted to retain the PR4G system, which does not have sufficient bandwidth to transmit data such as maps and video imagery. He observes that other NATO nations also have chosen to use legacy communications equipment. “This is why Sagem developed different systems to market, because the PR4G is too old,” he says.

FELIN features a day/night infrared gun sight that can capture and transmit video images. Images from the weapon can be transmitted directly to a multipurpose helmet-mounted monocular system that also serves as a night vision device and an overlay for digital maps.
Hugues notes that FELIN was designed for armies with a variety of legacy systems and requirements. Military customers could request Sagem to develop new capabilities that may be fitted into future FELIN equipment. These could be functions that currently are difficult to integrate such as video, data and other high-bandwidth transmissions and systems. Because the kit is designed for future upgrades and adaptability, the current version represents a base that can be built upon, he explains.

French army squad leaders will be issued mid-range binoculars with an integrated laser target designator and a laser range finder. The binoculars feature an uncooled infrared capability for night imaging and a digital magnetic compass that can provide a target’s directional headings and GPS coordinates. A more capable long-range version of the binoculars also is available.

All of the individual systems on the FELIN kit are interconnected by wires or Bluetooth that link to power and communications components. The wireless networking capability also connects the commander to individual squad members. Hugues states that the PR4G currently provides the link to higher echelon forces, but its limited bandwidth restricts communications to voice only.

Each infantryman is equipped with a ruggedized personal digital assistant (PDA) that supplies maps and the locations of the other squad members. Hugues notes that although the PDA is not a true identification friend-or-foe system, it does offer a degree of protection from friendly fire, and the PDA mapping system is especially useful for operations at night and in urban areas. “We think that it’s a first step toward a real identification friend-or-foe system,” he says.

Another key component of the FELIN system is an uncooled infrared day/night sight mounted on the Fusil d’Assaut de la Manufacture d’Armes de St-Etienne (FAMAS) assault rifle. The sight serves as a camera that allows soldiers either to shoot around corners or other cover or to scan an area without exposing themselves to danger.

The FAMAS assault rifle and the squad light machine gun each are outfitted with a handle with several control buttons so soldiers can communicate with other squad members and change the settings on the gun sight without taking their hands off their weapons. The buttons include a push-to-talk function, a day/night selector for the infrared sight and a view selector for the weapon scope. Another button allows soldiers to capture brief video clips through the sight, and a final button lets users select and enter different menus. A cable runs from the soldier’s weapon to the wireless network transmitter. The FELIN system also includes day/night observation and sniper sights.

The optical sight’s batteries can operate continuously for three hours before requiring recharging or replacement. All of the other electronic equipment on the FELIN ensemble can operate for 24 hours before being recharged. A vehicle integration kit allows soldiers to recharge their batteries in their personnel carrier while traveling. Troops can either plug their kits into individual power outlets located on vehicle passenger seats or load their batteries into a recharging rack.

Although the squad’s personnel carrier provides some operational connectivity, it is not fully integrated into the dismounted soldier network; however, the vehicle is linked to the platoon or squad leader. If a unit loses connectivity with the vehicle, the dismounted commander can link up with other FELIN systems. If the platoon or squad leader is killed or the system is damaged, the system can designate another soldier as a control node automatically.

The wireless network features an automated function that searches for the best transmission links between soldiers. Hugues notes that the first version of the FELIN kit does not allow the squad network to link with other FELIN-equipped units for coordinated operations, but the second version will feature an ad hoc networking capability. “On this [first] version, we have made a compromise,” he admits.

If platoon commanders want to detach a squad, they can designate a unit with their BMS. For example, a typical platoon may consist of three to four squads and one or two support squads that are equipped with Milan wire-guided antitank missiles. The commander can detach individual squads to another platoon or company.

Sagem will produce 358 prototype FELIN kits in 2007 that will be issued to the French army for a six-month field trial that the DGA will coordinate. The exercises will include two regiments, two battalions, the French army’s technical department and Sagem teams. At the end of the trial period, the level of the equipment’s development and functionality will be assessed. “If the operational customer is satisfied, it will be OK’d. If there are some problems, we are ready to continue development in the very short term,” Hugues says.

Sagem ultimately will manufacture approximately 32,000 individual FELIN kits with the goal of equipping all of the French army’s infantry battalions by 2012. Of this total, 22,000 will be issued to infantry battalions and the remaining equipment will be provided to armor, engineer and artillery units. FELIN equipment also will be issued to specific units such as special forces.


Web Resources
Sagem: www.sagem-ds.com
French Defense Procurement Agency: www.defense.gouv.fr/sites/dga


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