RAF MILDENHALL, England -- Although France is withdrawing its ground troops from Mali, there is no indication its air force will stop requesting U.S. aid in support of operations there.
The Department of Defense announced Friday that the U.S. will continue to provide mid-air refueling to French planes. The refueling operation has been going on since January, almost immediately after the French intervened in Mali to halt the advance of militant forces connected with al-Qaida.
To support French air power used in that operation, the 351st Expeditionary Air Refueling Squadron was deployed to Morón Air Base, Spain, to fly KC-135 Stratotankers over Mali and refuel French planes.
“We’re here as long as they need us,” squadron commander Lt. Col. Tim Kuehne said. “So, I don’t have a projected end date.”
French warplanes must transit significant distances to reach Mali. Consequently, they’re operating at the edge of their range once they arrive in its airspace and don’t have enough fuel to patrol or conduct attack missions.
“Without our gas, they basically would have to turn around as soon as they got there,” said Capt. Tim Gerne, an aircraft commander with the 351st who flies over Mali. “They couldn’t even make it back all the way back to the place that they left.”
The rebels, using heavy weapons seized from government armories during NATO’s bombing of Libya in 2011, defeated Mali’s ragtag army and occupied much of the country’s northern desert. France intervened in January, when the rebels appeared poised to advance on the capital.
Since the start of the conflict, France relied heavily on air power to defeat the militants and retake the occupied territory. As soon as French President Francois Hollande announced his country’s military intervention, the Armee de l’Air (air force) started bombing rebels in strategic locations across the country. Since then, the 351st has flown more than 200 missions and provided more than 8.8 million pounds of fuel to the French.
In addition to fuel, the U.S. flew more than 1,000 people and 1,500 tons of equipment and supplies for French and Chadian forces from January 21 to March 7, said an official with U.S. Army Africa command. Troops from Chad have also fought in Mali against the militants.
Despite an announcement that France will withdraw the majority of its troops from Mali by the end of the year, French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian has said his country was committed to staying in Mali for an “undetermined period” to prevent a “revival of terrorism.”