How France’s armed forces are riding the waves of innovation and digital
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Having long been at the cutting edge of innovation, the defence sector has been roughly shaken by the rise of digital. But in recent years, the Ministry of Armed Forces has taken the initiative by opening up more to civilian technologies.
“We are in the age of new technologies and digital, and our armed forces are not exempt”, said Prime Minister Jean Castex at the signing of the contract to develop Caesar NG, a new generation of connected artillery systems, which took place on 19 February 2022 at the Nexter plant in Roanne (Rhône).
During his visit. the Prime Minister also officiated at the launch of the fourth phase of the Scorpion programme, which aims to modernise the army’s combat capabilities with new armoured vehicles (Griffon, Jaguar and Serval) and a unique combat information system.
To undertake this transformation, the Ministry of Armed Forces focused on cooperation with the civilian world
Like the army, all of France’s armed forces are several years into a digital transformation on a massive scale. The aim is to optimise their internal operations and offer cutting-edge digital services to all their personnel.
This movement began in earnest in 2018, with the establishment of the Directorate General for digital, information and communication systems (DGNum), reporting directly to the armed forces minister, Florence Parly. It is tasked with ensuring global consistency across the ministry’s information and communication systems, and improving the conditions under which projects are carried out.
According to the roadmap published by the ministry, as new threats emerge, the challenge of digital technology is to “ensure operational superiority and the control of information in theatres of operations, make support more efficient, make everyday life easier for military personnel, improve civilian relations and make the ministry more attractive”.
The three challenges identified are: “Controlling and processing data; rebuilding secure, high-performance digital foundations; and the possibility for everyone to learn and take ownership of new uses in their roles”.
Their sights are set on improving the daily life of soldiers by making their communications more fluid, better organisation of data circulation between hierarchical levels and between the different services, and in the longer term, operational superiority through better control of data.
“In ten years, the major forces will be those that control the data: the army wants to be one of them”, said Colonel Olivier, lead officer of the French Army’s Programme Planning Division, back in 2018.
The renovation of the ministry’s intranet, “Intradef”, installation of a technical framework common to all information systems (project Defence Platform) and the creation of an environment that encourages armed forces personnel to develop their skills were the first steps toward that goal.
The Definvest fund and the Defence Innovation Agency (AID) provided the finishing touches to the scheme: the former to support the development of SMEs strategic to defence, and the latter to revitalise the unwieldy structure of the Directorate General of Armaments (DGA) by turning more toward innovations from the civilian world. Destined to become “the ministry’s flagship for innovation, open to the outside world, [the AID] will give our entrepreneurs a chance”, Parly said.
Cooperation with the civilian world
To undertake this transformation, the ministry focused on cooperation with the civilian world: universities, the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS), SMEs and startups. In fact, the days when the defence sector controlled most of the country’s innovation potential are long gone. The increased power of civilian research over the last 20 years has been game-changing and accelerated innovation processes considerably.
True cooperation therefore became necessary in order to tap into innovations and disruptive technologies, which are evolving more and more rapidly. The aim? To develop an innovation ecosystem to facilitate access to emerging technologies to the advantage of military systems and applications.
New technologies such as big data, cloud, blockchain, 5G, IoT, 3D printing, robotics, and augmented and virtual reality offer numerous possibilities for different military applications, as the institution’s early initiatives have shown.
The 3D printing blockchain FIBR²EO, governed by SIMMT (Integrated structure for maintaining land materiel in operational condition) in collaboration with the SME Vistory and the manufacturers Nexter and Arquus, aims to provide the maintenance chain with 3D printing facilities to allow production of spare parts for land army materiel, whether domestically or in a theatre of operations.
But the armed forces’ digital revolution also extends to the sea bed, as illustrated by Florence Parly’s announcement on 14 February 2022 that by 2025 the navy would be equipped with a pair of robot drones capable of diving to a depth of 6,000 metres. The ocean’s depths have become strategically crucial due to the proliferation of undersea digital cables connecting the continents.
From administration to the battlefield
In a completely different vein, the Milistore project is an application store designed to meet the day-to-day needs of military personnel. Via a smartphone, they can directly access useful everyday digital services: cybersecurity, information on life in their unit, army news, services for their daily interactions, job-related skills, etc.
Another digital tool, this one aimed at section chiefs and unit commanders, the Senior Officer Intradef Terminal (TIC) is a military-standard touchscreen tablet suitable for use in the field that provides access to data about their subordinates at any time.
Other strictly military operational applications should follow in due course. AI will be used to control aircraft systems supported by drones interconnected via an ad hoc cloud, similar to the future air combat systems (SCAF) that have been under development in Europe for the past decade.
Data analysis using big data techniques, ultrafast always-on access to operational data via the cloud, autonomous robots performing tasks dangerous to human beings, such as mine clearance, and storage of sensitive data with full traceability using blockchain are just some examples of applications destined to radically transform the soldier’s day-to-day experience in the near future.