French Force Moves Fast to Counter Threat in Mali

This article first appeared in Aviation Week & Space Technology.

For Operation Serval, the French military action to rid Mali of Islamist insurgents, Paris has sent 3,500 troops and 20 combat helicopters to its former West African colony -- more of either than France has deployed in 10 years of military involvement in Afghanistan. Another 870 men and their equipment are arriving this month, including French VBCI armored fighting vehicles transported by the amphibious assault ship Dixmude to the Senegalese capital, Dakar. And none of this was planned months or even days in advance.

France is the only country that can move so many troops with their materiel so fast to this desolate part of the southern Sahara, because it has permanent or semi-permanent bases of troops in its former colonies of Senegal, Gabon, Ivory Coast, Chad and Djibouti. Thus, less than 5 hr. after the order was given to send in French special forces and the air force, the first attacks were launched against insurgent positions.

From Chad came a marine infantry company of the 21st RIMA (Regiment d'infanterie de marine), headquartered in Frejus, France; a half squadron of the Foreign Legion's 1st REC (regiment etranger de cavalerie), headquartered in Orange, France; and a command post. From the Ivory Coast came a joint battalion combat team armed by the 3rd RPIMA (Regiment parachutistes d'infanterie de marine) headquartered in Carcassonne, France; and the 1st RHP (Regiment de hussards parachutistes) headquartered in Tarbes, France. And an infantry company from the 2nd RIMA Le Mans was boarding a flight to Mali 5 hr. after the initial whistle blew.

The result of this apparently smooth and speedy mission is that the hard-core militants quickly got the message: They could neither stop nor slow the French military machine. The insurgents' Toyota pickup trucks, Soviet-made BTR eight-wheel armored vehicles and 122-mm BM-21 truck-mounted multiple rocket launchers proved to be no match for the firepower of Rafale combat aircraft and Tiger and Gazelle helicopters. French columns of armored vehicles deployed over several hundred kilometers from the Ivory Coast capital of Abidjan to Bamako, Mali. Troops and equipment were dropped by parachute in the dead of night.

There was effective coordination between special forces and regular troops, along with intelligence-gathering by ground units, signals intelligence, satellites, reconnaissance aircraft and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV). All of this activity reassured the civilian population, which was 96% behind the French operation, according to poll conducted by the Al Jazeera news network.

The French lost one Gazelle helicopter pilot to a hemorrhage caused by a small-arms bullet on the first day. Enemy losses were estimated at 200-300 early on by French defense officials, but were not corroborated by independent sources or the insurgents.

But a senior French officer tells Aviation Week privately that even if the insurgents are "a little different from the Taliban in Afghanistan, less well-organized, less tough, they are nevertheless war-hardened, hidden, dispersed." They have caused trouble for the lightweight, unarmored Gazelles that have taken quite a few shots. "They don't have our means of communications, but they are no imbeciles, and warmongering is their basic trade -- they don't really know how to do anything else."

French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian shares this assessment. He describes the enemy as "agile, determined, well-equipped, well-trained and able to hide." But they could not hide in the towns, where they have no support from the population who resents the sharia law the insurgents imposed at gunpoint. This utter lack of popular support explains in part why the militants melted out of the towns they thought they controlled.

The French had three objectives when they launched Operation Serval on Jan. 11: stop the Islamists' advance and prevent them from toppling the interim Malian government; preserve and recover the integrity and sovereignty of Mali; and accelerate the deployment of the United Nations-backed African-led International Support Mission in Mali (Afisma) and European Union Training Mission to Mali (EUTM Mali).

The first and third objectives were clearly met by the end of January. The second objective has been met in part: The integrity of the country has been recovered, but whether it can be preserved is another question, hence the importance of the Afisma deployment and EUTM.

The EU mission starts at the end of March. It will provide training and advice in unit capabilities (up to battalion size), command and control, logistics and human resources as well as international humanitarian law, the protection of civilians and human rights. Headquartered northeast of Bamako, the mission will comprise 200 instructors, plus mission-support staff and force protection, bringing total strength to 450.

"France's vocation is not to remain militarily engaged in Mali over the long term," says French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius. "It is up to Africans to ensure the security of Africa."

The French have taken pains to ensure that Malian forces and other African troops officially liberate the towns from which Islamist insurgents fled. The presence of Malian troops, however, is often symbolic, as they are in no condition to be an effective force.

The French air force began with day and night airstrikes to the east and west of the Niger River at the bottleneck created where Mali turns sharply west and where the Islamic insurgents were gathering to march on Bamako. The French struck in the northeastern Gao region to destroy the insurgents' infrastructure, command and training facilities. French intelligence had spotted nearly 1,200 armed men, key leaders and more than 200 vehicles in the towns of Lere, Douentza and Kona.

The French army moved steadily north in a textbook mission that included a spectacular parachute drop of men and vehicles to ensure Timbuktu Airport was safe for transport planes to land. Nearly 40 aircraft took part in this operation, the biggest French airdrop since the Battle of Kolwezi in 1978, in the then-Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo). The first phase of the operation culminated early this month with an overnight attack involving more than 30 aircraft (fixed- and rotary-wing) of 20 targets in and around Kidal, the last town held by the insurgents, 200 km (124 mi.) from the Algerian border and 1,150 km from Bamako.

France is the only non-African state to deploy ground troops. Togo, Nigeria, Niger, Burkina Faso, Benin, Senegal, Guinea, Ghana and Chad are sending troops within the framework of Afisma. But France has received logistical support from European countries and the U.S.: the U.K. provided two C-17s and a Sentinel R1 surveillance aircraft, and offered up to 40 personnel in a headquarters or training team role in the framework of EUTM; Denmark sent a C-130J-30 Super Hercules with 40 support personnel; Belgium, 75 military personnel with two C-130H transports and two medevac A-109 helicopters; Spain, a C-130 Hercules with 50 support personnel to help transport the Afisma force; the U.S., intelligence support and five C-17 Globemaster IIIs; and Germany, three C-160D Transalls and an Airbus A310.

The Dutch government, meanwhile, made its entire air transport fleet of four C-130Hs, a DC-10 and two KDC-10s with air-refueling capability available to France through the European Air Transport Command in Eindhoven, Netherlands. Canada provided a C-17ER, while Sweden gave France its share of the NATO strategic airlift capability, dispatching a C-17 from Papa air base in Hungary.

The U.S. may also deploy the Global Hawk UAV from a base in Niger or Burkina Faso.

The first phase of Operation Serval is over. The second phase is murkier due to history, geography and culture.

Mali is about the same size and shape as a combined France, Benelux countries and Iberian peninsula, with the "France and Benelux" part being desert, home to the nomadic Tuaregs who used to trade in slaves and had large slaveholdings as recently as the mid-20th century. That fact still rankles Mali's black African majority, living in the fertile "Iberian peninsula" part. The Tuaregs want an independent state in northern Mali, which they call Azawad.

The unstable political situation of Mali in 2012 after a coup, and the radical Islamism of some of the formerly secular Tuareg independence movements, enabled three insurgent groups to gain control of Azawad, where they imposed Islamic law on a population cowed by guns that were bought with ransom money from hijackings and drug-trafficking. The Malian army, ill equipped and badly trained, could do nothing.

It became clear in January that the three principal insurgent groups, AQMI (Al-Qaida au Maghreb islamique), which originated in Algeria; Ansar Din, a radical Islamic offshoot of the secular Tuareg MNLA (Mouvement national de liberation de l'Azawad); and Mujao (Mouvement pour l'Unicite et le Jihad en Afrique occidentale) planned a coordinated mission to seize Bamako. In addition, they aimed to destroy the weakened Malian army prior to the deployment later in the year of Afisma and EUTM, extend their domination and destabilize the government.

Unable to control the situation, Mali's interim president, Dioncounda Traore, asked France to intervene on Jan. 11.

–With Nicholas Fiorenza in Brussels.

For more about equipment used in Operation Serval, go to

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