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French Scorpion Vehicle Deal Takes Shape

Jun. 21, 2014 - 03:45AM   |  
By PIERRE TRAN   |   Comments
Scorpion Program: France plans to replace, among other equipment, its véhicule de l'avant blindé.
Scorpion Program: France plans to replace, among other equipment, its véhicule de l'avant blindé. (US Army)
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PARIS — French Army planners, procurement officials and a three-company group are working on terms and conditions of a draft contract aimed at launching a €5 billion (US $6.8 billion) Scorpion equipment modernization this year, the biggest European program for land weapons, a company executive and defense official said.

The Army and industry dearly hope the program will go ahead, as development and production of a troop carrier and a medium tank are seen as crucial for business and operational needs.

“It’s a holistic contract that covers all aspects from the cradle to the foxhole,” the executive said.

Nexter, Renault Trucks Defense (RTD) and Thales lead an all-French cooperative team selected by the Direction Générale de l’Armement (DGA) procurement office to bid exclusively for the véhicule blindé multirole (VBMR), a troop carrier, and engin blindé de reconnaissance et de combat (EBRC), a wheeled medium tank.

The industry team is in negotiations on the terms and conditions of the planned contract, covering the budget, timetable, specifications, production and logistical support, the executive said.

Some €2 billion out of the €5 billion Scorpion budget has been earmarked for 2,080 VBMRs, while the budget for the 248 EBRC tanks is closely held. A collective term — EBMR — covers the two vehicle programs, which are intended to have a high level of common equipment.

“The launch is a great opportunity for the French companies and their supply network of small and medium-sized enterprises to develop two new families of modern vehicles, the VBMR and EBRC, with their equipment,” Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said on June 16 at Eurosatory. The land systems and security trade show closed June 20.

The Scorpion program includes modernization of the Leclerc heavy tank and an information network for the battle group.

The corporate team submitted a first bid on the EBMR vehicles in February, which set a “rough order of magnitude,” the executive said.

That baseline allowed the talks to go ahead with the DGA and Army, as the three parties seek to agree on the vehicles, weapons, an onboard combat information system named système d’information et de combat Scorpion, and squeeze them all into a tight budget.

“The timetable is not clear but industry expects — fingers crossed — a contract signing this autumn,” the executive said.

James Tinsley, managing director at consultancy Avascent, said the terms and conditions would be related to numbers, funding and break points. If there were a cut in production or if there were changes to be made, funding would be restructured.

“That is a very critical discussion,” he said. “They need mechanisms to change terms for industry.”

A first delivery of the combat information system is due in 2016, and a first batch of 92 VBMRs will start rolling off the production line in 2018, a defense official said. The contract will include initial support, including debugging the first batch.

The first EBRC is due for delivery in 2020, with a total 248 units, the official said.

However, the DGA is unable to sign any orders as there is deep uncertainty while the Economy Ministry looks to slash spending, the official said.

Renault Trucks Defense, a Volvo unit, displayed at Eurosatory its BMX 01 demonstration vehicle for the VBMR. Nexter had built its BMX 02 vehicle. The DGA had commissioned the two companies to build the demonstrators for the armored personnel carrier. Under the cooperative agreement, Nexter will work on the hull, RTD the engine and driveline, and Thales will supply the electronics and network.

The Army is clear about the requirement.

“We know what we want; everything is specified,” said Army Col. Rémy Cadapeaud, Scorpion program officer.

The EBRC specification includes the architecture, six-wheel drive, level of protection, 7.62mm remote machine gun, 40mm cannon, missile moyenne portée (or medium-range missile), vehicle electronics and combat information system.

MBDA builds the anti-tank missile and CTA International, a joint venture between BAE Systems and Nexter, makes the 40mm gun. Two crew members will be in the turret and one in the hull.

The information system is “the brain of Scorpion,” a second officer said at Euro­satory.

The vehicles fitted with the combat information system, delivered on a single communications network, will connect “from the bottom to the top,” Cadapeaud said.

The priority is an information system for “soldiers facing the enemy, not the chiefs safe in their trucks, safe from the enemy,” he said. “We want the enemy to say, ‘these are strange soldiers, they have a new information system that gives them advantages, they know things we don’t, they can anticipate.’ ”

Lessons learned from the field have fed the requirement for an “augmented reality,” a capability that allows crews to track a friendly blue force equipped with GPS on the screen and avoid firing on them.

“That’s new for land forces. The Air Force and Army aviation have that capability,” Cadapeaud said.

An augmented reality is intended “to accelerate the decision-making, to understand, know everything, and know what you know is right, at the right time and right place. You want to play chess and see everything on the table. We want to know everything.”

The planners see vehicle electronics as essential, “keeping soldiers and chiefs in the loop, connecting system to system, sensors, other vehicles, and detection,” he said. “You plug in all your systems and subsystems with standard interfaces over 40 to 50 years, at a very low cost.”

The electronics onboard will also deliver a training simulation, so the service can train troops wherever a VBMR is to be found. The system can also be used to prepare for the mission.

The Army expects some 1,700 heavy and 300 light VBMR units, both four-wheeled and six-wheeled.

Planners asked for the engine to be set in the front of the vehicle and opened up the hull interior for the three crew and eight troops to be in the same open space. The design is modular, so the vehicle can by equipped for specific missions by plugging in kits.

There are three versions: troop carrier, 120mm mortar carrier with an open roof, and medical. That compares to the 34 for the véhicule avant blindé, the present troop carrier.

Both the EBRC and VBMR will have remote control weapons. The former will carry the MMP on the turret, while troops can stow the anti-tank weapon inside the VBMR.

The VBMR will be fitted for the Sagem Felin soldier’s gear, be air conditioned, and the medical version will have added air cooling.

Thales will deliver the electronics, integrate voice, video, electro-optronics, radar and data. The company won the contract for the Contact software defined radio in the last days of the previous administration in 2012.

Sagem will supply some of the electro-optronics on the vehicles.

The VBMR will replace the venerable véhicule avant blindé, which is some 40 years old. The former will weigh 22 tons compared to the latter’s 18.

Scorpion is important for Nexter, said François Lureau of consultancy EuroFLconsult. The VBMR and EBRC vehicles are the main part of the program, he said.

Exports are crucial to the company as the last véhicule blindé de combat d’infanterie is delivered next year to the French Army, he said.

A “lack of visibility” leads to a lower attractiveness of the French military vehicle market, which hurts Nexter as the company is still highly dependent on domestic orders and wholly state-owned, Hélène Masson, senior research fellow at Fondation de Récherche Stratégique, wrote in the first publication of the think tank’s Défense & Industries report.

On the price of the EBRC vehicle, Cadapeaud said, “Not so much.”

The key point is not the unit price but its development, and maintenance support of the vehicle. “You can have an expensive vehicle, but cheap to maintain, or a low price vehicle and expensive to sustain — that’s not good.

“We must have a sustainable system. And we will have it,” Cadapeaud said. “The key point is the price. It won’t be their price, it will be our price.”

The Army works in an integrated way with the DGA, expressing the military need to the procurement office, which discusses with industry to see the price and technology consequences, he said

“We launch when ready, at the price we can afford,” he said.

The Army adopted a Scorpion branding strategy to protect acquisition from death by a thousand cuts.

A parliamentary official said that given a lack of clarity on the defense budget, it would have been safer for the Army to focus on smaller individual programs rather than package them all up under the Scorpion mega-contract.

The service’s idea was to build the equivalent of an aircraft carrier, too big to cancel, said François Lureau at consultancy EuroFL­consult.

In June’s edition of the Army’s glossy in-house magazine, Armées d’Aujourd’hui, the special feature on the Scorpion program has a box story spelling out the decision by the high-level ministerial investment committee, chaired by the minister, to go ahead with an order for the land weapons program. ■

Email: ptran@defensenews.com.

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