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France's Thales wins key UK ‘robo-squaddie’ contract

Could be worth £2 billion

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French defence contractor Thales has been awarded the £15 million contract for the assessment phase of the UK's version of the digital battlefield, the FIST (Future Integrated Soldier Technology) programme. Thales beat deadly rival BAE Systems to the deal, which in total could be worth something like £2 billion, and is actually somewhat broader-ranging than its name might imply.

It's instructive to compare FIST with the US digital battlefield vision we covered here recently, because although they are ultimately about the same thing, the philosophical approach is quite different, and we think speaks volumes about differences in military doctrine. The US is attempting to digitise the battlefield and portray it on screen, with for example tanks becoming a sort of mobile office and HQ moving all the counters around, whereas the Brits seem to start more from a fixed bayonets premise. FIST "is a tri-Service project that aims to provide an integrated fighting system to troops that have to fight on foot at close quarters with the enemy, a role which is now termed ?dismounted close combat.?"

This side of the pond we view the infantry section as a "weapon 'system'... a 'platform' much as we treat ships and aircraft." So it starts more at the individual level, with Thales' take on it prior to today's award saying:

"[FIST will] enhance... effectiveness in key capability areas of C4I (communications and situational awareness), lethality (weapons and sighting systems), sustainability (logistics), survivability (body armour and stealth) and mobility (weight and navigation)... Potential equipment under consideration includes thermal weapon sights, night vision, helmet-mounted/head-up tactical displays, GPS navigation and radio communications. Final equipment selection will be based on the conclusive evidence of increased effectiveness derived from the forthcoming 3-year assessment phase, commencing in 2003."

FIST is not however just about infantry. the MoD describes it as a "tri-Service" project, and with the likelihood of its appearing in aircraft and tanks, clearly the UK's forces will be deploying numbers of what you might call data gathering units. Joining up the data centrally then might give you something akin to the US system. BAE's proposal even says FIST will lead to " a quantum leap in the effectiveness of individual soldiers and sections within the network-enabled, digitized battlespace."

Do we see a certain amount of friction here? Yes, we fear we do. BAE sort of won the UK carrier deal, but only sort of. Thales also sort of won it, in a bizarre three-cornered compromise with the MoD as ringmaster and squabbles kicking off before the ink was dry. Thales, meanwhile, was viewed by the US as being deeply, suspiciously French even before more recent events. Yet Thales tells us: "Thales has active involvement in all of the major soldier modernisation programmes around the world including the USA's Land Warrior, France's FELIN, Normans in Norway and IdZ in Germany." The USA's Land Warrior? Does Donald Rumsfeld know about this? ®

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