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.