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This article first appeared in Aviation Week & Space Technology.
France's intervention in Mali is testing its legacy air transport fleet as the French air force supports ground forces fighting an advance by Al Qaeda-linked insurgents toward the Malian capital.
French C-160 Transalls, C-130 Hercules and Airbus A310 and A340 aircraft have been tasked with strategic transport of troops and equipment in support of the operation, which President Francois Hollande initiated Jan. 11 after an international mandate to prevent a terrorist takeover of Mali had been slow in taking shape, and because evidence from surveillance indicated a massive move toward its capital city, Bamako.
Named "Operation Serval" after an African wildcat, the French campaign began with about 200 French troops supporting Malian ground forces aided by airstrikes that targeted positions in the rebel-held north, a desert region roughly the size of France. Initially the air raids employed Gazelle helicopter gunships armed with HOT (long-range anti-tank) missiles and 20-mm cannons, and Dassault Mirage 2000Ds and Mirage F1-CR reconnaissance aircraft backed by Boeing KC-135 refueling tankers. On Jan. 13, France sent four Rafale fighters to conduct airstrikes in northeastern Mali before joining six Mirage 2000Ds and five KC-135s at France's N'Djamena air base in Chad.
After several days of bombing failed to halt the insurgent advance, Operation Serval escalated with the Jan. 15 announcement by French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian that French troop levels in the region would rise to 2,500, including 800 in Mali.
In the preceding days he said Paris had requested logistical support from allies to bolster a strategic air bridge, but only the U.K. was quick to respond, furnishing two C-17 strategic transports Jan. 13 to deliver heavy equipment and supplies to the land-locked country. Dubbed Operation Newcombe, the British aircraft are now in-theater, though one of the C-17s was grounded in France for more than a day due to an undisclosed technical issue.
Le Drian says a number of allied nations are mobilized to offer "concrete military assistance," including Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Germany, Italy, Poland, the U.K. and the U.S.
"This is necessary because airlift is an area where France must improve its capabilities for transporting troops and equipment," says Alain Dupas, an aerospace and defense consultant based in Paris. He notes that when the A400M becomes available "the situation will be significantly different."
France has ordered 50 A400Ms to be delivered starting this year and will be the first nation to receive the new strategic airlifter. Last year, Airbus Military was set to begin A400M deliveries to the French air force in November 2012, well ahead of the contractual deadline in March, but the program was massively restructured in 2009 due to major development delays.
In September, the first two A400M deliveries were shifted to the second quarter this year related to engine issues that have since been resolved. Function and reliability trials took place in December and the aircraft is due to fly again early this year. Airbus Military is now planning four A400M deliveries in 2013, three to France, one to Turkey.
In October, when Paris began hinting at a Malian intervention, lawmakers questioned the readiness of the air force's strategic transport capability.
"Where is the A400M?" Philippe Folliot asked French armaments agency (DGA) Director Laurent Collet-Billon during testimony before the defense commission in October. "Can deliveries be accelerated, if only to avoid having extend the life of our old Transall?"
Collet-Billon said that by June the air force should begin crew training and planning for pre-operational capabilities.
"I am in favor of increasing the number of A400Ms if given the budget, which is not the case," Collet-Billon told Folliot. "It is convenient to make a trade-off between the transmission capacity logistics and intervention on the ground."
Since Hollande took office in May, the government has been reviewing defense priorities in light of the nation's fiscal crisis. A new strategy and program law are expected in the coming weeks. Already the military has faced a funding reduction of about 10% in 2011-13 that has forced delays in major programs, including procurement of new multi-role tanker transports set to replace the air force's 50-year-old tankers. The first new aircraft now is expected in 2017.