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SOFINS Highlights Growing French Spec Ops Market

May. 10, 2013 - 04:55PM   |  
By PIERRE TRAN   |   Comments
The Sillinger 470 UM RD is a 4.7-meter foldable inflatable boat, fitted with an interconnecting valve for faster inflation of the compartments and two speed tubes.
The Sillinger 470 UM RD is a 4.7-meter foldable inflatable boat, fitted with an interconnecting valve for faster inflation of the compartments and two speed tubes. ()
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SOUGE ARMY CAMP, BORDEAUX, FRANCE — The French special operations command led for a first time in Europe a three-day trade show and conference, signaling the niche market formed by the élite forces’ operational needs.

The show, dubbed special operations forces innovation network seminar, or SOFINS, ran April 9 to 11, and was a French response to the U.S. special operations industry conference (SOFIC) and Jordan’s special operations forces exhibition and conference (SOFEX).

The special operations forces were among the elements identified as part of the new model armed forces in France’s white paper on defense and national published April 29. The report pointed to the leading role played by the special forces in recent operations, and their ability to respond quickly, flexibly and to work deep in hostile and complex terrain.

The show highlighted the procurement process operated by the French special forces, a parliamentary defense specialist said.

The special operations command, Defense Ministry, procurement office and regional agencies assembled a shop window to sell French military and security technology to special forces of friendly nations and allies, and the arms of the domestic special operations units.

SOFINS aimed “to strengthen the links between small and medium-sized companies and the special forces,” Army Maj. Gen. Christophe Gomart, commander of special operations, said at the opening on April 9.

Most of the some 110 exhibitors in the sprawling marquee were small and medium-sized enterprises, although the big players — EADS, MBDA, Safran and Thales — were also there with the largest stands.

Among the official stands were Onera, the aerospace research organization., and Direction Générale de l’Armement (DGA) procurement office.

France invited some 35 foreign delegations to the show, Gomart said.

A high-level support of political and military was evident, with Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian and the chief of the Defense Staff, Adm. Edouard Guillaud, attending the opening.

The special operations command, which draws on picked units of the Army, Air Force and Navy for its forces, has its own evaluation and procurement team, often working on a fast-track acquisition.

The specialists in the equipment and forward planning unit look for kit that is light, fast and high performing.

Gomart pointed to the leading role played by special forces in the French intervention in Mali, with a swift deployment on Jan. 11, which blocked and turned back an advance by counterinsurgents on the capital, Bamako.

Lessons of that operation, dubbed Serval, are being fed into equipment being prepared by industry for expected tenders for the special forces.

In Mali, guerrilla fighters used pick-ups armed with a Russian 14.5mm gun, which has a range of 1.2 kilometers, greater than that of the 12.7mm, or 0.50-inch, NATO standard weapon.

In response, Renault Trucks Defense, a unit of the Volvo group, fitted a pintle-mounted Nexter 20mm gun on its Sherpa light special forces vehicle, which was displayed at SOFINS.

RTD will field the Sherpa light special forces vehicle in a tender expected this year for some 240 jeep-type vehicles, to replace the 51 Panhard VPS (véhicule protégé SAS) units bought in 2008. A selection could be made in 2014.

Next year, a tender is expected for a special forces heavy vehicle in the 10-ton category, to replace the current fleet of 212 units.

An example of the technology on display was an active imaging system from Syt Technologies designed for all-weather, night-and-day identification using an eye-safe laser device.

Syt, based in Nimes, southwest France, developed its system under the DGA’s Rapid program for small and medium-sized companies, intended to give a quick response to development funding requests.

The laser system is dual-use civil and military, with the French police interested in using the kit to identify football hooligans through smoke, and there is also interest in Latin America, chairman Mehmet Yimaz said.

Syt had 2012 sales of €1 million (US $130 million) and forecasts 2013 sales of €2 million-€3 million.

On a nearby lake, Sillinger, part of the Marck group, demonstrated a 4.7-meter foldable inflatable boat, the 470 RD UM, fitted with an interconnecting valve for faster inflation of the compartments and two speed tubes. The Singapore special forces last year bought 48 of the boats, with a first delivery in April.

Exports make up about 70 percent of annual sales, forecast at €9 million this year, up from €4 million a year ago, said Managing Director Ivan de Quatrebarbes.

“The military market shows strong demand,” he said.

Among the French special forces’ requirements are anti-tank weapons, a glossy brochure for the special operations command said.

MBDA’s stand displayed its missile moyenne portée (medium-range missile), which the missile maker hopes will get a French program launch this year, possibly in June or July, an industry executive said. The MMP would replace the aging Milan anti-tank weapon in the Army’s inventory.

MBDA has won one undisclosed export customer for its Milan extended-response version, with a first delivery due in 2017. But foreign sales for the Milan ER are hard to win as the weapon lacks the seal of approval that comes from an order by the French forces.

The Milan ER lost out to the Javelin when the French Army opted for the US-built missile for troops in Afghanistan.

That competitive pressure is still alive as the US is offering an upgraded version of the Javelin with a long-range, 4.7-kilometer version from the US Javelin joint venture comprising Raytheon and Lockheed Martin. The joint venture team made presentations in Paris the week of April 15, a source familiar with the project said.

The show organizers, which includes the Aquitaine regional council, hope to make the show a regular two year event.

Whether the SOFINS show will be a success depends on whether the exhibitors get orders in the next six or so months, said Patrick de Colas, chief executive of Coges, the organization that manages the Eurosatory biennial trade show for land weapons.

SOFINS features French products, but delegations often want to see kit from all over the world, including their own industry, de Colas said.

The prices charged for small stands for start-ups, at €3,000 for 9 square meters and the midsized stands at €15,000 for 18 square meters are “reasonable,” but the largest stands, at €34,000 for 36 square meters are double the rate charged at Eurosatory.

Apart from advanced technology, however, special forces rely on human capabilities, a senior analyst said.

“Such human capabilities always answer to unique requirements that are extremely demanding in terms of selection, training and the quality of personnel serving in the special forces,” Camille Grand, director of think tank Fondation pour la Recherche Stratégique, said in an article in the SOFINS catalog.

“Special forces have to know not just how to ‘act differently” but also ‘think differently’ … which justifies special demands when it comes to recruitment and training.”

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