Sunday, 13 January 2013

C'est Mali-fique - The French operation in Mali and the RAF involvement


While travelling, Humphrey was quite impressed to hear the news that the French Government has begun operations in Mali in support of the government against rebel forces, and in particular the news that the RAF is providing logistical support. This short piece is intended as a quick ‘hot thoughts’ about what this development may mean more broadly in defence terms
 
For an ezcellent summary on the wider situation in Mali, try reading  - http://defencewithac.blogspot.co.uk/2013/01/more-trouble-in-timbuktu.html which looks at the wider situation.   

Firstly, it is clear that the days of France being able to exert a near colonial level of influence in West Africa without much international interest or attention have gone forever. Following the end of their direct colonial presence in the region, France continued to treat much of West Africa as a fiefdom, maintaining a network of small bases, containing a mixture of low tech capabilities and used to actively suppress those individuals or networks which posed a threat to its interests. It could be argued that for many years, there was next to no public interest about in this area, and that the French were able to conduct a lot of operations ‘under the radar’. By contrast the current operations have been front page news and shone a spotlight onto a poorly understood and little visited region. While the French intervention is likely welcome, the level of attention paid to it demonstrates that it is increasingly difficult for nations to conduct interventions, even in areas with little interest, without gaining significant public attention. One must assume that the days of the Dhofar intervention, or other quiet wars have gone forever, and that even the smallest military operation must be carried out under the full glare of the international media.

Judging by the news, the reaction seems to indicate that in fact there is no such thing as a ‘home front’ anymore either. The fact that mainland France has gone on a heightened terror alert, and that there is seemingly a highly credible risk of internal domestic backlash shows that actions, even in far off and remote nations, will continue to have consequences in the domestic arena. It also shows that when actions are taken, they will increasingly be linked to other campaigns, such as that of extremist islam, and seen as justification for further attacks. This move will almost certainly provide justification to extremist elements to link to attacks to French interests across the globe. Although no different to previous such instances with the UK or US, it is clear that interventionary operations will no longer be seen through the prism of just being a military operation, but instead can easily be linked to other matters. While there is support now, the question is whether after some terror attacks,whether there will continue to be French domestic support for what are possibly kindly described as quasi-colonial delusions of grandeur, by conducting combat operations in an area which may once have been of interest, but which has long since slipped to the periphery.

The involvement of the RAF highlights other more interesting lessons too. Firstly it cruelly exposes a paucity of strategic airlift in the French military. While it is often easy to point to the French military and highlight what appears to be a catalogue of high end military equipment like Rafale, Leclerc or the Charles de Gaulle, it is perhaps quite telling that despite all this, that when push comes to shove the French military is unable to provide sufficient strategic airlift at short notice to move troops in for offensive operations.

One shouldn’t be smug, for the UK is hardly in a perfect position either, but it is perhaps noteworthy that the French airlift fleet is getting a lot older (if memory serves its airtranking fleet is drawn from KC135 stratotankers dating from the late 1950s and originally devised for the nuclear role). Domestic politics mean France is unlikely to procure a C17 capability, but this once again highlights that for all its front end grandeur, the French are unable to operate at distance alone in a purely national capability. Arguably the UK could have done this without recourse to external support, although the timescales are questionable.

Why does this matter? Firstly it demonstrates again the validity of the C17 purchase for the UK, one of the single best investments of recent decades. This has been able to provide at short notice a major addition to French capability with potentially real differences to the outcome. Also, it helps make the case for a long term retention of the fleet. Although this may sound odd, one thing the author noticed in the recent NAO report on the MOD last week was that in the strategic airlift section, was a set of stats showing that the UK will have a surplus of strategic airlift against requirement after 2022. Incidents like this will continue to help make the case for the retention of the C17 and A400M fleet in planned numbers, as the goodwill and strategic influence the UK gets from. it, help demonstrate the value of the capability.

As an operation this once again demonstrates the SDSR vision of the British Armed Forces operating in a range of interventionary roles. Very, very few countries would have been able to provide this sort of strategic effect, and means that the UK has a real asset that can be brought into play. Its all very well having tens of thousands of tanks and infantry, but if you cant move them, then you can’t employ them to best effect. The reality is that NATO has failed to provide a strategic airlift capability here, and that the only NATO member in Europe operating C17s has had to support the operation. What does this mean? Well on the one hand it means that the UK has gained a certain level of planning influence within other NATO capitals – after all, any other nation considering similar actions would be equally reliant on the UK to provide C17 support. This means engaging with the UK, listening to its views and accepting that access to its strategic airlift may come at a diplomatic cost. In real terms, the UK may well have gained some wastaa with the French which can be employed at a different time as a result of this support.

It also demonstrates the importance of the renewed links between UK and France which have come about in the last few years. It is unlikely such an operation could have occurred easily without planning and co-ordination, and this is a good test of a relationship where two similarly capable powers are required to work together.

Finally this is likely to have an interesting effect on the French ‘shopping list’. It remains to be seen whether any Urgent Operational Requirements (UORS) can be identified from this affair. What will almost certainly not be publicly discussed, but which could happen is that the operation will identify shortcomings across a range of capabilities and force enhancements to increase both Mirage, Rafale and Army capabilities. Most pressingly the French may look at their requirement to replace the KC135 and perhaps realise that close co-operation with the UK may have its advantages. The idea that purchasing an A330 fleet, very similar to the UK one, may have real advantages in terms of economies of scale for support, training and the ability to sure identical platforms to load and move equipment in a hurry in future. This operation could perhaps well help herald a closer step forward in UK/French co-operation.

Whatever happens, these operations come at a cost, and as President Hollande has sadly realised, the human cost is too high when even one soldier is killed. One must hope that there are no other casualties after the reported loss of a helicopter the other day.

The outcome of the operation will be interesting to see in due course – in many ways a classic ‘intervention’ as beloved of authors of Strategic Defence Reviews across the globe since the 1990s, it will be interesting to compare to Sierra Leone, both in its short term effect, but also the long term implications of whether a substantial military involvement helps resolve a problem prior to a UN force arriving in numbers, and what impact this has on the stability and interests of Mali in the long term.

77 comments:

  1. See second comment here about possible effect of (at last!) of A400M:
    http://cdfai3ds.wordpress.com/2013/01/14/mark-collins-mali-french-forces-in-action-at-least-bamako-wont-fall/

    Note that the Canadian Defence & Foreign Affairs Institute's "The 3DS Blog" has a new site and URL--the old site will remain online as a searchable archive:
    http://www.cdfai.org/the3dsblog/

    Mark
    Ottawa

    ReplyDelete
  2. Francois H. is not using C-17s just for carrying a few troops. These babies are built to carry tanks and Mali is just about perfect for a tankie on a turkey shoot.
    Mali is just about as big as it gets geographically speaking and very difficult to, 'occupy', militarily speaking. It will absorb all that France can throw at it unless they nuke the northern bit. (which I wouldn't put past them).
    Sir Humph has frequently described the sort of back up required to support a combat group and Francois has already had to borrow a major plank in that operation and,to our embarrassment, it broke down just before take-off.
    If there is one aspect that worries me, it's the mission creep. It happens everywhere and the blackmail of military and political pride poisons the policy of withdrawal.
    Going to the United Nations for military backing is probably a waste of time and unless HMG has a specific deal for one or two flights and no more, we are going to be in it for a long time.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Derek - I am inclined to agree with you, it is very difficult to declare 'mission acomplished' when you dont have a coherent opposition military to deal with.
      This feels like it could go on for some time.

      Delete
  3. I also bring up this point whenever people talk to me about how "strong" armies are. You can have all the airborne, mechanized, and armor divisions in the world...if you can't DEPLOY them, they are useless. This is why the U.S. is unmatched when it comes to projecting military power throughout the world. Their strategic lift capability is second to none.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Fantastic post, Sir H! How many African and French soldiers do you think will be needed in order to tie down Mali? Somalia, while not exactly the same, required roughly 25,000 soldiers from outside forces. Do think the forces being deploy will be enough?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi,
      Good question - the issue is what sort of long term settlement looks like. The French seem to be building up to a few thousand on the ground, but the longer term issue is will airpower and limited ground strikes take the heart out of the insurgency, or instead will it need capacity building, training and presence across the nation.
      The paralells with Afghanistan in 2001 are quite striking, and we can all see where that led!

      Delete
  5. As an aside to the current news (especially Algeria), did the West cluster-feck with the Quebec Treaty? Surely AP-mines and a judicious use of cluster-bombs would help to contain (and hopefully reduce) the threat from Islamists within the Maghreb...?

    Sure, some may find it inhumane but - if the threat is existential to modern-society - could it be justified? The North of Mali is said to be the size of Spain but has a tiny population: Have the West hampered their abilities in order to please a misguided, media-focused minority who live far from the fear (or responsibility) of protection...?

    ReplyDelete
  6. Interesting how Europe can't operate quickly, efficiently, accurately and for long periods without our American cousins.

    ReplyDelete
  7. I do not think you should talk so dismissively about the KC-135. It is indeed old, but the USAF is still operating about 400 of them, and they will only gradually be replaced by the KC-46.

    ReplyDelete
  8. I see "mission creep" is starting - 350 troops to start with.

    I believe this country is about 200 miles from the sea !

    Where will the "Roll on - Roll off" ferries unload their bits and pieces ?

    ReplyDelete
  9. fantastic post, while not a former officer or enlisted man it seems to me that one or two brigades in the lines of the US Army/Marine Expeditionary Force supported by drones/ airpower is enough to handle 90 pct of the conflicts that arise. true we in the free world will have a problem if an Asian war develops, that is a more existential question than a sub Saharan or indo China insurgency

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    The Helambu and Langtang regions are less striking but conveniently close to Kathmandu, attracting a little fewer than ten percent of trekkers. The Langtang valley trek & the Ganja-La pass are known trails in this area. This leaves vast areas of eastern and far western Nepal relatively untrodden by visitors. To hike in these areas you’ll need either to get set for camping and carry your own supplies, and live like a local, or pay to join an organized trek with tents and accept the compromises that go along with that.
    With a good operator, you can anywhere in the wild. A Great Himalayan Trail now runs the length of highland Nepal – though it will be for some time, if ever, before such a route will be serviced by lodges.
    Treks in remote far eastern and far western Nepal are mostly restricted to two kinds of globe trotters, both adventurous in their own way. The majority come on organized camping treks with agencies – in fact, this is obligatory for those areas that require a permit. The minority are independent trekkers prepared either to carry tents and food or negotiate with porters, or to seek food and lodging in local homes and basic lodges. Some great camping outdoors include the Manaslu circuit Trek, Upper Mustang trek the Dhaulagiri circuit, Rara lake trek and the great Kangchenjunga trek, both north and south.

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