Neither Miracle Nor Catastrophe for the First 2.0 French Soldiers in Afghanistan

During its deployment in the Surobi District (Northeast from Kabul) from December 2011 to May 2012, the Battle Group Picardie gained the opportunity to be the first unit to use the new French infantry system FELIN (for Fantassin à Equipement et Liaison Intégrés). Nearly 800 soldiers from this BG (mainly from the 1st Infantry Regiment located at Sarrebourg, east of France) have provided during 6 months the new system’s first operational deployment. It’s the first unit in Europe (maybe in the world) to implement and operate a full-digitized soldier system for mounted and dismounted combat.

The first packs of the FELIN system were delivered to the 1st Infantry Regiment on September 7th, 2010, and some months after to elements of the 3rd Engineer Regiment and the 1st Marines Artillery Regiment. The delivery rate in the French army is actually four regiments each year until 2015. After one year of individual and collective training, this deployment was a real test. The French Army, the defense industry and other armies engaged in similar programs may learn from this experience.

The Surobi district and the Kapisa province proved to be one of the most difficult area of operations for the French Army since its deployment in Afghanistan: a climate both very hot and very cold, a mountainous area with elevation changes, an active insurgency, … Well ahead of US forces, in the Summer 2011, the French military forces shifted from a combat role to an advisory and assistance mission with the Afghan army (the 3rd Brigade of the 201st Corps). Thus, a specific mission on a specific ground allowed the BG Picardie to test this new system in real conditions.

After four months of deployment, some users of the Felin system summarized the first lessons learned in an internal communication document from the French forces deployed in Afghanistan. This document (in French) is now available and reveals officers’, NCOs’ and soldiers’ views.

First, the FELIN system is clearly modular and could be used in all combat phases: day, night, offboard and onboard vehicles, static guard in FOB, foot patrol, etc. This is one of the positive aspects the users mentioned. Modularity allows them, for example, not to overload infantrymen with too heavy equipments during operations in which they performed long walks or escalations.

Second, both personal batteries’ and day/night weapons sights’ weights on the 5.56mm FAMAS Felin assault rifle (or on the light machine gun FN Minimi) are clearly identified disadvantages (among 29 pounds of equipment by soldier, on average). French soldiers offset this shortcoming by a more intelligent use and some day-to-day TTP modifications. Therefore, the infrared weapon sight was used during static guard or observation phase by support elements (after being carried in a backpack during infiltration phase). Hits up to 500 meters and precise observation by night (up to 900 meters by day) have proved achievable with this new sight: accurate hits had been previously restricted to an average of 400 meters. An EOTECH sight, lighter than the other one, could be used with the FAMAS or the Minimi if necessary.

On the other hand, a soldier can take target or intelligence photos with his sight and transmit them to his superior via a secure network like Bluetooth connected to his personal terminal. For a commander (and each level of command) who is sometimes far from the main action, it is now possible to have a better situational awareness through these photographs.

Even if a section has a theoretical autonomy of 72 hours, the batteries discharge more quickly in an extreme climate, like winter in Afghan mountains. They require to be recharged more regularly (maybe directly on chargers placed in many combat vehicles).

Another advantage is the geolocation of all combatants via an integrated GPS in the ergonomic “tactical vest”, which also carries batteries and man-machine interface, and of all Infantry or Armor vehicles with specific kits (VBCI, VAB or AMX-10 RC). The system tracks positions of friendly forces in real time and reports them on many screens. It proved very useful in order to coordinate the operation, to rearticulate units, and to hold a larger portion of land.

Squad and section leaders have also a specific terminal named SITComDE (dismounted warfighter information system terminal) to exchange information or data and to send orders. Different levels (brigade to group) were linked via the digitization of the battlespace (NEB in French, for Numérisation de l’Espace de Bataille) and different networks like SIT, SIR or SICF (that stands for tactical, regimental and brigade levels respectively).

The last innovative part is the osteophonic headband placed around the soldier’s head and who ensures discreet voice communications. It captures and transmits the vibrations from the soldier’s speech via bones of the skull.

To sum up, this first deployment signals the advent of the all-digital battlefield for today’s ground combat French Army and soon other armies. As with other new programs, improvements need to be done (especially for reliability and strength of electronic equipment – for example, to avoid cables which twist). Phase of experimentation and exercise (with foreign partners like the British Army) is ongoing to add new tactical advantages via technology and correct doctrine.

This new generation of system allows to use a perspective of information superiority for each individual soldier (as described by this papers in English named Digital Hoplites. Infantry Combat in the Information Age). New discoveries will probably be made to fully master this new system. In short, a new era has come for French regiments (or 22,580 systems) soon to be all equipped with FELIN systems.

F. de St V. / Mars Attaque

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