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European Overwatch

Jean-Pierre Housson provides an overview of the recent history of Europe’s five largest soldier modernisation programmes

As a debate develops within NATO about the infantryman of the future, it’s interesting to compare the technical solutions of the competing projects, and to evaluate the different European programmes.

The Enhanced Night-Vision Goggle (ENVG), combines an imageintensifier tube like those used in existing U.S. Army NVGs for the first time with a lightweight, low-power thermal imaging camera incorporating an “uncooled,” long-wave infrared (IR) sensor. This exploits the strengths of the two types of sensors in a single, integrated system. © DoD

The Soldato Futuro section commander has the use of a target acquisition unit
(UAB or Unita Acquisizione Bersagli) with binoculars featuring bi-field optics
(diurnal channel and thermal night channel), laser rangefinder and integral compass.
© Paolo Volpini


The British programme for the soldier of the future, FIST (Future Integrated Soldier Technology), is the longest-running and most expensive of the European programmes currently under way. Work on its design started in 1994, and funds have been allocated from 2009-2010 until 2015, with 2020 fixed as target year for full operational capacity. The quantitative aim is to equip 30.000 to 35.000 soldiers until 2015/20. The contract was awarded to Qinetic and Thales UK. In 2003, Thales UK won a contract worth €30 million to carry out design evaluations of an initial version, FIST V1.0 (from 2003 to 2005) and an improved version FIST V2.0 (2005-2007). The initial tests were delayed by several months because the designated units had been deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan. Moreover a large-scale test, carried out in the autumn of 2005, produced inconclusive results. This led to an overspend of £7 million, the assigned budget for the evaluation phase having increased from £26 million to £33 million. A decision on the launch date of the production phase has been deferred, and the initial operational capacity is now expected to be reached at the end of 2010.

The FIST concept covers five major areas: C4I, lethality, mobility, survivability and sustainability. The soldier equipped with the FIST kit is an element integrated into a system of systems, in the broader concept of networkcentred operations . At the sub-system level of communications, the soldier will be able to communicate up to company level by means of an encrypted short-range radio, while at higher levels communication will be provided by a Bowman integrated combat radio system. The patrol leader’s radio will permit communication with the advanced operational base. The system network will guarantee operational continuity by automatically redirecting communications when the connection is broken – when a soldier goes over a peak, for example. Vocal and telematic communications will be transmitted directly to the soldier, or relayed by UAV from headquarters, which will download orders, data and images of the field of battle supplied by forward observers, or airborne/satellite-based sensors and surveillance tools. The soldier will also have a GPS at his disposition, and a dead reckoning module and a map projection system. The weapons consist of an SA80 assault rifle, supplemented, where necessary, by a grenade launcher type. Firing, observation and target acquisition, as well as munitions, all have their own sub-systems, designed to increase the lethality of the combatant. Battledress and protective wear, designed with a particular attention to comfort, resistance, camouflage and mobility, incorporate integrated electronic systems, with cables connecting the various subsystems to their energy sources.


Launched at the end of the 1990’s, the German programme for the infantryman of the future, IdZ (Infanterist der Zukunft), entered its pre-deployment phase in 2006. An early version (IdZ-7) having been tested in Kosovo since 2002, the Minister of Defence signed a contract in September 2006 with Rheinmetall for the development of an improved or «extended» version, known as IdZ-ES (IdZ Enhanced System). Rheinmetall committed itself to supplying two system demonstrators in 2008, with mass production to start in 2009. Like its European counterparts, lIdZ-ES has three major functions: protection; situational awareness; communications and arms systems. The modular communication system, entirely digitised, enables voice, data and video transmission. A GPS system with integrated digital display supplies a representation of the situation on the ground in real time, which can thus be tracked at all levels of command. Moreover the interconnection of the command unit, controls, communications and data processing (IC4U) allows for the exchange of information in real time between the infantrymen, the section vehicle and the affected networks. The contract also envisages the development of a wide range of sensors for use in firingcontrol and mine-detection, as well as the integration of the IdZ-ES kit technology in various armoured tank systems (IFV Puma, VTT Boxer, etc.).

Rheinmetall is also working in collaboration with other partners on a project to devise a new helmet, equipped with a visor (gun sight), and also on a system permitting the soldier’s state of health to be monitored. The IdZ-ES kit includes an H&K type G-36 assault rifle fitted with a laser device, a C4I system integrated into the combat jacket, and several sub-systems including ballistic protection and NBC and night vision etc. One important sub-system is the Thales NavICom C4I, which supplies the position of the soldier and his comrades, the location of mine-fields previously identified by other sensors, and targets including their co-ordinates and trajectory, and the presence of opposing, friendly or neutral forces, all the while ensuring secure communications and permitting the exchange of information between the soldier, the different levels of command and control at the rear.


On 18th September 2006, the Spanish Minister of Defence signed a contract with EADS-CASA for the development and initial production of COMFUT (COMbatiente FUTuro). The contract, worth €24,5 million over three years, is for the design, development and production of a set of 36 units to equip three sections of twelve soldiers (the first 12 kits were delivered at the end of 2007). At the conclusion of this phase, EADS-CASA anticipates an initial order of minimum 7000 units between 2009 and 2012/13.

COMFUT is characterised by a C2 system of command and control in real time, supplied to each member of the unit, consisting of a portable computer, a weapon/helmet connection (HK G-36), a camera mounted inside the helmet, night-vision sensors, an equipped bullet-proof vest (radio, batteries, range-finder etc.) with integrated rucksack, and battledress with reduced IR to guarantee thermal stability. The C2 system will supply essential requirements such as situational awareness, the position of unit members and of the target. COMFUT will be integrated into various armoured vehicles (Pizarro, VAMTAC, etc.). The C2 system is being designed and developed by private industrial holding company GMV (Grupo Mecanica de Vuelo).


The French programme, FELIN (Fantassin à Équipements et Liaisons Intégrés), launched in 2001, was then entrusted to SAGEM, who signed a contract with the DGA (Direction Générale de l’Armement) in March 2004. Compared to the other European programmes, this contract shows a marked difference with regard to the size of the allocated budget: it covers the development, industrialisation and mass production of 31,445 individual systems, as well as their maintenance to operational standard for a two-year period, at a cost of over 800 millions euros spread over the period from 2004 to 2007/2008. The first equipment was delivered for testing and tried out during an eight-week period, from January to March 2007. The DGA plans to introduce FELIN into army units from 2008. An improved FELIN system (FELIN V2) is also on the drawing board for the near future, from 2010 to 2015.

FELIN is one element in Bulle Opérationnelle Aéroterrestre (BOA), a system of systems including terrestrial and airborne components of C2, integrated into a network. Like its European counterparts, FELIN is also integrated into terrestrial vehicles which are part of BOA, such as the new VBCI from GIAT. FELIN comprises three major systems: the individual system, which comprises 6 six sub-systems (clothing and protection, portable electronic platform or PEP, personal energy sources, equipped weapons, helmet and information network) ; specific systems including the SIT (Système d’Information Terminal) for the disembarked combatant, with its communications interface panel case (BIC) and IR multifunction medium-range binoculars; collective systems including personal battery-recharging kits and vehicle kits to provide energy to embedded troops. FELIN aims to significantly improve the infantryman’s capabilities and responsiveness in carrying out reflex actions: the combatant will be able to engage with observed targets by day or night and in real time. Within an infantry division, it will facilitate the organisation of communication networks, and its capacity to transmit data and video images, as well as radiotelegraphy, will allow for an increased rate of activity. FELIN is also designed to improve ballistic protection and NBC for combatants, without reducing their operational efficiency.

Soldato Futuro

The Italian programme, Soldato Futuro was initially conceived in a framework of co-operation with Germany; this did not materialise, due to differences of opinion regarding both concept and time schedule. Soldato Futuro is now in the process of being deployed for experimentation. The research and development phase was carried out from 2001 to 2006, at a cost of 18 million euros (the unit cost of an individual kit is estimated to be 30,000 euros). The development and production of the system have been entrusted to a consortium led by Selex Communications (Finmeccanica Group). Investment has been assigned for mass production to begin in 2008, with a first evaluation scheduled between 2010 and 2012. The Italian programme is presented as an open, modular and flexible combatant system, capable of being rapidly reconfigured so as to adapt to future technological developments, and to the operational needs of the situation at hand, while being compatible with the systems of allied countries. The system exists in three versions - for section commander, gunner, and grenadier – with a common base and modules which are specific to each function. The C2 system is common to all three versions, featuring the classic functions of navigation, orientation and data exchange.

The weaponry comprises a new Beretta assault rifle which is light and modular, and may be supplemented by a 40 mm grenade-launcher. The weapon comes complete with a ICWS optronic aiming system (Individual Combat Weapon System), enabling the infantryman to discover, identify and engage targets in all weathers, day and night. This sub-system has a wireless connection to the C2 system, which differentiates it from the other European systems, which have cabled sub-systems. The captured images are thus accessible to the section commander and to troops at the rear. The grenade-launcher also features an innovative firing-system with a ballistic calculator with laser range-finder. The section commander also has the use of a target acquisition unit (UAB or Unita Acquisizione Bersagli) with binoculars featuring bi-field optics (diurnal channel and thermal night channel), laser range-finder and integral compass. The clothing and protection will include a combat jacket combined with a universal support module, for the different sub-systems equipping the Soldato Futuro. The main objective is to be as invisible as possible, by exploiting camouflage adapted to the environment or antidetection fibres The outfits will also benefit from an increased NBC protection factor, thanks to the use of fibres impregnated with active carbon. As for electricity supply, the batteries will run on methanol, with all systems being recharged via a battery pack, or by being connected directly to external supply systems (vehicles, etc.).

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