France Reboots its Networking Capabilities

September 2007
By Henry S. Kenyon

The wireless local loop (WLL) program will provide the French army’s logistics units with a cellular communications system designed to carry voice and data traffic. The WLL system allows commanders to track supplies and to access the French Ministry of Defense’s intranet.
Twin efforts seek to provide wireless services to ground forces, unify aging defense systems into one national architecture.

The French military has launched two programs to modernize its tactical and strategic communications systems. One effort will equip army logistics units with a wireless network allowing commanders to track supplies and to access the national military intranet. The second program, now in its preliminary phase, will link all of France’s individual military networks into a single system.

Modern networked armed forces require robust information links across all echelons. In recent years, several key European nations have launched initiatives to modernize aging network infrastructure and to introduce new technologies at the tactical level. The French Ministry of Defense is following this trend by introducing a wireless networking capability and restructuring its national information technology backbone.

The goal of the wireless local loop (WLL) program is to provide French army logistics forces with a rapidly deployable communications and data system based on the commercial Worldwide Interoperability for Microwave Access (WiMAX) standard. The decision to use a civilian wireless technology that is not resistant to jamming is based on the concept that sophisticated military technology is not required for all battlefield communications, explains Olivier Barré, director of defense and communications systems, EADS Defence and Security Division, Paris.

Valued at 12 million euros, the program’s contract calls for EADS and its partner Television De France (TDF) to design and deliver a WLL system to provide data and voice communications for logistics units. Packaged in a ruggedized mobile container, the WiMAX-based equipment will carry classified information up to the restricted level, allowing personnel to access INTRADEF, the French Ministry of Defense’s intranet. EADS officials note that it is the military’s first large-scale implementation of WiMAX technology.

Barré observes that forces conducting combat operations in difficult urban and geographic environments may require sophisticated telecommunications technologies such as frequency hopping and advanced tactical radios. However, for most military communications and the majority of peacekeeping operations, he maintains, cutting-edge military technology is not necessary and is very expensive. “When you see the amount of money that is invested in commercial telecommunications products, there is no way that a small country such as France can invest in a new generation of WiMAX just for defense,” Barré says.

WiMAX is an attractive technology because it provides high bandwidth and is easy to install, both features that are critical during military operations. Barré explains that during the planning process, French army officials told EADS engineers that the service rarely faces electronic warfare but that it often encounters bad weather, poor infrastructure and tight deadlines to establish communications networks. The army chose WiMAX because it allows units to establish instant local area networks.

The WLL network is intended for use behind major combat operations. Barré notes that although logistics forces provide tactical support, they do not enter the most intense part of the battlefield where their communications might be jammed. “We know that it’s very difficult to protect WiMAX, so we’re not going to do that unless there is a real requirement,” he maintains.

Army specifications call for a lightweight, rugged, portable system. The equipment must be simple to set up and operate without the need for laying landlines or establishing frequency settings. “What’s very important for them [the army] is ease of use and ease of deployment: Put it in a plane, unload it, put it on the ground, and cover it up. They would like it to be very easy to use,” Barré says.

One advantage EADS has in designing the WLL system is that the firm is a member of the international WiMAX forum, says Jean-François Lafore, director, EADS’ French institutional client relations, Paris. He explains that the forum provides the firm with access to new developments in the standard that can be customized for defense applications. These modifications include network flexibility and frequency management.

The prototype WLL system consists of a ruggedized, transportable unit containing an antenna mast, switch and router. Power generation and transmission systems can be quickly attached to the system, and the network connects to the French military backbone network or to a satellite terminal. Each individual WLL unit has a standard 10-kilometer transmission radius. Maximum range is up to 20 kilometers, but Barré cautions that this is dependent on the terrain. Although the system is not line-of-sight within its individual cells, line-of-sight links are used to connect the cells into a network, Barré says.

The WiMAX system can transmit voice over Internet protocol messages on the 2.4-gigahertz frequency and data at speeds up to 32 megabits per second. Barré notes that the system also automatically adapts itself to the transmission requirements of the network. “It’s a first step, but there is no revolution. It’s standard WiMAX technology,” he explains.

A full-scale demonstration took place at the end of the summer. Once the army has validated the technology this fall, EADS will produce 40 base stations linked to 440 terminals beginning in 2008.

The WLL network will be used by French army logistics forces to keep track of supply shipments across a battlefield or peacekeeping operation. Besides providing location information, the system will transmit supply data read from bar code readers and allow users to access logistics databases. For example, if units transporting fuel are ordered to move to a new position, they can obtain new directions and transmit data within the system’s WiMAX coverage area.

The French military currently operates a variety of communications and information technology networks. The goal of the SOCRATE NG program is to unify all of these different systems into a single Ministry of Defense-wide architecture.
EADS is exploring the possibility of developing mobile elements within the WiMAX transmission cell. Another potential capability is handing off data between units as transport vehicles pass from one cell to another. Other future applications include specialized jam-resistant military WiMAX waveforms. Company engineers also are examining building a mobile, ad hoc network with peripatetic WiMAX-based transmission stations. Although the technology is difficult to develop, Barré explains, the military will require self-constructing mobile networks for future operations. However, he notes that these technologies will be developed only if the military determines there is a definite need for them. “The problem we have with those technologies is that they evolve very fast, and if you modify them, then you freeze the technology level. So we are very cautious before developing nonstandard features on very sophisticated commercial technology,” he says.

Another program EADS is involved in is an effort to develop an overarching network that will include all of the French military’s individual service networks. This past March, the French Armaments Directorate (DGA) selected three industry teams, led by the Thales Group, EADS and Sagem Défense Sécurité, to produce study proposals defining the future infrastructure for a national telecommunications system for the Ministry of Defense. Each of the teams’ studies also must outline the technical, financial, legal and contractual terms that will allow the Ministry of Defense to meet its strategic and operational goals.

The new telecommunications system, known as SOCRATE NG (Système Opérationnel Composé des Réseaux des Armées pour les Telécommunications Nouvelle Génération), initially will serve the three branches of the armed forces and eventually transfer the individual service networks into a single high-speed, end-to-end, secure architecture. The program also will link networks at the ministerial and multinational levels.

Barré explains that the French military traditionally lets the individual services address their own theater and national communications needs. But this policy has led to multiple networks within the Ministry of Defense with each of the services operating its own voice, local area and backbone systems. These various overlapping systems are beginning to age and cost the government money. “The Ministry of Defense, facing a very complex situation, has decided to begin to harmonize these systems,” he shares.

SOCRATE NG will use all of the services’ national communications, voice, local area networks and secure networks to create a single global Internet protocol service for defense. He adds that it has very little to do with the current SOCRATE, which is an old backbone network. “It’s a huge challenge. If you consider the French position, today the networks are old but working,” Barré says.

Barré explains that over the past few years, European nations have begun programs to modernize their communications systems, the first being the United Kingdom’s Defence Information Infrastructure (DII) (SIGNAL, September 2003) initiative followed by Germany with its Herkules program. SOCRATE NG will form a backbone on which the Ministry of Defense can build an intranet linking all of its services. Parts of the backbone’s central core also will consist of line-of-sight links.

However, the program is in only its initial stages. The DGA launched a one-year study in January, which was presented to the three consortia. At the end of July, five solutions were presented. The DGA then selected two studies. At the end of the year, the two proposals will provide the government with a cost estimate to build the system. 

Barré believes that at the end of the study period, the DGA will not immediately select a team but will ask for a final bid request instead. “We are not going to arrive at the same solution. So I expect the DGA to make a best of all the solutions [choice] and ask the consortia to bid,” he says. However, while this is probable, he cautions that the government may make an entirely different decision. This additional process will take at least one year. It is also possible that the DGA may select one of the consortia at the beginning of 2008 based on its cost estimates. But he believes that this is unlikely. “At best [a team] will be notified at the end of 2009 or the beginning of 2010,” he predicts.

Barré notes that the DGA was uncertain of the kind of systems that it wanted when it released its requirements. Instead of providing specific requirements for the type of network, bandwidth and quality of service, it is soliciting suggestions from the consortia. “We’re brainstorming right now,” he admits.

While it is easy to define an ideal network, challenges such as legacy infrastructure and systems remain. Barré notes that experience from the United Kingdom’s DII program indicates that the difficulty is not designing the new network, but achieving it. “If you dream too much, then you’ll never reach the new network simply because of the legacy problem, or that it will take you 20 years or because it will be extremely expensive,” he says. The DGA is seeking the best way to create a good network while taking the various legacy networks into consideration.

Another constraint is cost reduction. Operating a myriad of different systems and technologies is extremely expensive for the French government, Barré says. For example, the Ministry of Defense organization responsible for operating all of the nation’s defense software and network systems has more than 10,000 personnel, twice the size of the United Kingdom’s equivalent defense information technology agency. He adds that the French government is looking for cost reductions through automation within SOCRATE NG.

EADS also is proposing in its report that the network not be strictly limited to central France. Instead, the firm is borrowing the DII concept and suggesting that SOCRATE NG cover a larger geographic area and provide a number of associated services. EADS’ proposal will use other lessons learned from the DII program. Barré shares that the report is built around three ideas. The first is that because of the high costs of developing a new network infrastructure, its services should extend to and benefit both civilian and military government organizations. The second idea is that commercial technology is key for developing national infrastructure and that it is appearing in battlefield applications as well. He notes that commercial systems such as WiMAX in front-line applications are useful despite their vulnerabilities because wars against technologically sophisticated opponents are uncommon. The last notion is the value of providing service to customers, which is important as communications continues to become a commodity, he says.

Web Resources
French Ministry of Defense:
Television De France:
Sagem Défense Sécurité: