SOFINS 2017 : a third venue and a much larger show

By Jean-Michel Guhl

Quite exceptionally blessed by a mild and sunny early spring weather, the third edition of SOFINS — or Special Operations Forces Innovation Network Seminar — which now has expanded to a real military show, however remains quite confidential, both by its inherent nature, a selected number of visitors and guests, and by the fact that it is located way outside of Bordeaux at the Camp de Souge in the Landes pine forest, the present home of the 13e Régiment de Dragons Parachutistes or 13e RDP which is one of the main constitutives units of the Commandement des Opérations Spéciales (COS;

Host and visitor of SOFINS 2017 as well, Admiral Laurent Isnard (at left), is the commanding officer of the French Commandement des opérations spéciales (COS), a force reservoir of some 3,000 highly trained combatants nowadays active on many crisis fronts. © J.-M. Guhl

“Special Operations Command”) is the organisation which coordinates the use of the specials forces of all French military branches (army, navy and air force). Similar to the US USSOCOM, the COS was created on 24 June 1992, following the Gulf War in Iraq. Its role is to direct and coordinate missions for special forces units which are permanently under its direct command and immediately available for action on demand from the Président de la République. The COS is presently led by Contre-Amiral Laurent Isnard who acted as host of the 2017 venue which numbered a very large number of European SMEs hailing from most of the Old Continent, from Finland to Austria and from France to the Czech Republic, most of all NATO nations or friends.

Among the most noticed visitors at SOFINS 2017 our camera pinned Mrs Patrician Adam, the President of the French National Defence Commission at the Assemblée Nationale. © J.-M. Guhl

Launched by a plenary conference (open to all visitors) on the morning of 28 March, opened by the President of the Cercle de l’Arbalète, Benoît de Saint Sernin, and with an official speech by the General Commander of French Special Operations, Rear-Admiral Laurent Isnard on the theme « The contribution of innovation and SMEs in the Special Forces », it was followed by a presentation of technological innovations for the 10 years to come by a civilian expert. Some 4,000 visitors originating from about 45 countries, as well as many foreign military delegations have attended this year’s venue. On their side some 170 entreprises exhibited their products and shared their experience with only one goal : to prepare the future of « special ops » and keep their countries’ elite forces at the leading edge of the trade. Especially as today’s adversaries are more and more apt at mastering modern technologies too. Many of which are readily available in the public domain.

French Senators Jacques Gautier, Daniel Reiner and the deputy Yves Foulon are seen paying a close look at the new Czech Bren-2 automatic rifle produced by CZ. Gautier and Reiner have been very active over the years, leading the French Senate Defence Commission. © J.-M. Guhl

Having to face new threats, the French special forces however continue to confront them adamantly wherever France has decided to take part in fighting lurching menaces. Hardly ever in the limelight, the COS and its special forces — now 25 years old and numbering some 4,400 combatants — have never been so much engaged in action than during the past decade. Always That is why they deserve respect and interest even though they remain highly surreptitious and their actions of classified nature.

Three days of show

The Official inauguration of SOFINS took place in the presence of Mrs Patricia Adam, acting President of the National Defence Commission of the National Assembly
and Rear-Admiral Laurent Isnard, General Commander of Special Operations, and Mr Benoît de Saint Sernin, President of the Cercle de l’Arbalète. The exhibition proper then went on from 10.00am – 8.00pm with indoor and outdoor exhibits and dynamic demonstrations and exhibitor tests, BtoB and BtoG meetings, exhibitor conferences with most proeminent actors like Nexter, RTD, Airbus, Safran and Thales leading the fray.

President of ESDPA Joseph Roukoz posing with officers from the HQ of the Armée National du Niger today quite active in supporting French and German expeditionary elements fighting islamic terrorist groups in the Sahara-Sahelian Band. © J.-M. Guhl

Particular to SOFINS, was an evening event at the Souge Camp starting at 8pm. All visitors being invited to a buffet supper before the PAOS (Special Operations Assault Landing). At 9.15pm only as the sun had set PAOS demonstration (Special Operations Assault Landing) with hot refuelling of two helicopters in the dark, an H225M Caracal from EH 1/67 « Pyrénées » from Cazaux loaded with armed commandos and one Tigre HAP from EOS 6 of 4e RHCFS from Pau providing close protection. Spectators were able to see through the darkness, thanks to a video screen projection as seen through the eyes of an observer using a LLL TV and infrared gear. A very late return to noraml life was then offered to the visitors, after a long walk in the dark back to the distant parking lot. Something the organizers should absolutely improve for the next SOFINS.

The Airbus Helicopter H225M Caracal is nowadays the rotorcraft mainstay of the French Special Ops Command (COS). It is currently employed in operations in Africa providing sterling service. © J.-M. Guhl

On the second day of the venue, the Souge Camp opened at 7.30am with access between

8.30am – 10.00am to the Arbalète Lab showing some 10 start-ups pitches, and event open to all visitors soon followed by a formal presentation of the start-up businesses that have been distinguished in 2017 by a jury of leaders and experts for their innovative solutions in the fields of drones, artificial intelligence, 3D printing, virtual reality, science of materials… From 10.00am – 6.00pm the indoor and outdoor exhibitions resumed with more exhibitor tests, BtoB and BtoG meetings, as well as additional exhibitor conferences. Of special interest for the visitors, at 2.00 pm, special forces demonstration made use of special equipments during interventions on mobile threats: interception by an FTE helicopter  (Sniper rifle to neutralise lead vehicle) then intervention of a GRA (action group) on two immobilised vehicles 

Main land vehicle selected by the COS in 2016, the Renault-Trucks-Defense Sherpa Light 4×4 is designed to provide light forces (infantry, paratroopers, marines, internal security) very high performances in terms of mobility and carrying capacity. The Sherpa Light vehicles are equipped with protection systems against mines and improvised explosive devices and a ballistic protection according to CEN 1063 and STANAG 4569. They are also fitted with a comprehensive set of self-defence weapons. © J.-M. Guhl

At the end of the day, at 8.00pm during the Gala evening ; invited guests attended the hand out of 5 innovation trophies:

COS SOFINS 2017 Innovation Trophy

Best Special Forces collaboration – expert center award

Best Special Forces collaboration – SME award

Special Forces innovator award

SOFINS 2017 Special Forces award – Best start-up

The Kuwaiti Police delegation seen visiting SOFINS 2017. Kuwait is one of the Gulf nations which relies most on French assistance for the training of its security personnel. © J.-M. Guhl

The last day at SOFINS, set on exactly the same format at the preceding but squeezed in a morning session only, was entirely dedicated to participating VIPs. Open to all, it saw senior French military authorities again perform a welcome speech by the President of the Cercle and the General Commander of the Special Operations, while demonstrations of land vehicles, drones and rotorcraft went on until 3.00pm. A closing speech by the President of the Cercle, Benoît de Saint Sernin and the General Commander of the Special Operations Rear-Admiral Laurent Isnard, marked the end of the show.

A French Army special ops member in full FELIN gear holding the new HK 416F assault rifle selected for the replacement of the legacy FAMAS 5,56 mm posing in front of a brand new Sherpa Light 4×4 combat vehicle. © J.-M. Guhl

Enter drones and robots

Drones were everywhere to be seen in the various exhition booths at SOFINS. They have literally invaded the show ! With the most minute and simple ones being much in view. Often of COTS nature, available in any specialised R/C model stores, anything that is affordable and expandable is of great value for « special ops » as they do not need complicated flight procedures reckons a French Army NCO… « Although lacklustre, they become very handy when they can be connected to a tablet or any PC in order to be flown and used as a covert recce  tool ». Such is the trend of the days… In the air, but also on land. Indeed for special forces, who act as small reconnaissance or combat parties, size matters. That is why compact drones held the floor at SOFINS. As well as man-portable systems and various protection devices demonstrated by such companies as Safran, Rockwell-Collins, Thales, and more.

The Commander of the FANCI’s special forces from Côte d’Ivoire being briefed at SOFINS 2017 on the characteristics of the Airbus Helicopter Tigre by a pilot of the 4e RHCFS from Pau. © J.-M. Guhl

Along with their current commitment in the Middle-East and West Africa fighting very active terrorists groups, the French special forces serve as a model and a driving training force for quite a few friendly African and Arab countries, something that has to do closely with French know-how, a true « savoir faire » which is widely shared not only with French conventional forces, but also with allied nations. « Quand on trouve des solutions, bien sûr, tout cela est partagé ensuite avec les forces conventionnelles de l’armée française », Contre-Amiral Laurent Isnard admits. That is why nowadays, the COS can be erected as a model for many, something which augurs well for the future of SOFINS as well.