Friday, 1 February 2013

Lessons from Mali and implications for the UK.


So, a few weeks after an initial intervention involving just two RAF C17s, the UK has now found itself committing a significantly higher number of troops, equipment and capabilities into play in Mali and the wider West Africa region in support of French operations there. At home, the debate suddenly seems to have intensified over the size of the Defence budget, and how much national treasure needs to be spent on security. There have been many complex issues discussed, and in this piece, Humphrey wants to try and put out some wider thoughts about what the Mali intervention may mean.

The first and foremost lesson is very simple – namely that the UK has quite clearly retained a superb ability to deploy military personnel on operations around the world, even in areas where there is no traditional UK support network at very short notice. The initial deployment of C17s showed the real value of 99 Squadron, while wider deployment of Sentinel, ISTAR assets and provision of a RORO ferry shows how versatile these assets are.  In particular, Sentinel appears to be performing particularly well, and one wonders whether a renewed case is being made for its retention beyond 2015.

It is all too easy to knock the UK and say that it has ceased to be a credible military power, but in reality very few nations are capable of achieving what the UK has done in recent weeks, much less while doing this and supporting all the other myriad of operations too. Mali appears (currently at least) to be another demonstration that the assumptions made during the SDSR about force level requirements appear to be about right – namely that the UK can engage on one enduring operation and still have plenty of resources spare for other discretionary operations of choice.

The next lesson is  that you get the capability that you pay for – this may sound obvious but in fact the Mali operation has perhaps highlighted the significant differences in capability between the UK and French forces. Over the years Humphrey has noticed a regular trend of internet sites or media articles comparing the UK and France and noting that both nations spend similar amounts on Defence, but that the French appeared to have far more high profile capability than the UK (e.g. Rafale and the Charles De Gaulle CVN). The question is often asked ‘why’?
UK French co-operation in Africa (Copyright MOD)

Humphrey would argue that the answer to the question is being seen in Mali now – namely that the French military, perhaps for reasons of Gallic pride and industrial protection, has spent many years investing in some fairly spectacular front line capability such as a CVN. This is glamorous and a good example of French industry at work. However, what has been shown is that there are glaring gaps in French capability, and their ability to respond rapidly to a crisis. The list of UK assets which have been deployed are mainly in the logistics area, the so-called ‘enabling assets’. These are not glamorous, high profile and their people rarely get the attention or praise that they deserve. Logistical work, or strategic airlift though is crucial to the ability to sustain military power at distance. What we have seen here is that the French military lacks the sovereign capability to be able to conduct a discretionary intervention operation without a significant level of external support.

The most telling sign is on reading that the UK considered deploying a Joint Force Logistics HQ, which would have been able to co-ordinate the supply and support effort for the operation. The fact that the French potentially needed this capability does not inspire enormous confidence in their ability to support operations globally. Similarly, the incredible value of the MOD RORO fleet, which have now been assigned to support operations by providing strategic lift to the French military has also been shown again. The author maintains that the procurement of these vessels was an extremely sensible decision - particularly given that the French navy is currently resorting to using LHDs to conduct strategic lift, due to its own lack of RORO assets.

This is perhaps another key point – the French military is not currently committed to any high profile operations other than Mali, yet its military seems to be unable to cope without support. The UK remains engaged in Afghanistan, and elsewhere, with a significant draw on resources, yet has sufficient spare capacity to generate some very useful assets at short notice. The author would argue that the operation in Mali is a vindication of the UK investment in less glamorous capability areas like logistics in the last few years. It has meant that the UK is able to provide meaningful support at considerable distance from the homeland, and do so without compromising other operations.

It is perhaps ironic that people have spent years arguing on the Internet and elsewhere that defence cuts have made the UK military too small to matter anymore, but somehow the moment we find resources and capabilities to deploy on operations, arguments quickly change to the idea that the UK is overcommitted. Providing this operation goes on for a short amount of time, then there is almost certainly no reason why it cannot be supported, and it sits as a very good example of how SDSR vindicates the concept of discrete interventionary operations.

In terms of the wider picture, a key lesson highlighted here is the value of trainers, and the legacy of the British Empire. For many years the UK maintained training teams in former colonies in West Africa and elsewhere to capacity build for the military (the so-called British Military Advisory Training Teams – BMATTS to some, but more recently retitled into new names). Defence cuts and a post imperial withdrawal have massively reduced this footprint in the region. Now though it appears that the UK will be re-deploying training teams across the English speaking regions of West Africa, as part of efforts to help capacity build in regional armies ahead of their deployment into Mali.

A key lesson here may well be that firstly the UK could see renewed value in the funding of training teams. While the deployment of 20-30 people in a country to train SNCOs and Officers may seem a questionable use of public money to some, the ability to help generate a well-trained, disciplined and politically reliable and capable military in the region is invaluable. In future, one must wonder whether the post HERRICK Army may find resources to deploy small numbers of training teams into the region (as perhaps hinted at in public speeches by CDS) and try to increase the capacity of these forces. After all, in the long run it is probably vastly cheaper to run a 20 man training team for 20 years than it is to deploy 300 personnel plus equipment into the region to act as fire-fighters. One wonders if there may be a quiet reversal on the reduction in training teams, and a renewed UK presence in many regions of Africa where we have long been absent.

It is likely that the operation will have gone a long way to proving the concept of Anglo-French military co-operation. Although the two nations are similar in size and capability, it is probably fair to say that over the years, there has not been as much co-operation as there could be. Recent work to bring the forces together on exercises has helped, but it is only by going on a real operation that you can start to iron out the bugs and really forge true working relationships. This will go a long way to helping improve the overall joint capability between the two countries, although it does seem that the French are perhaps far more reliant on external support than had previously been realised. In turn this work helps provide a meaningful and useful demonstration to other nations like the US that European powers are still willing to stand up and generate meaningful military contributions. When one considers both this, and the Libya operation have involved far less US assets than perhaps previous operations did, then perhaps one has reason to feel more optimistic about European nations pulling their weight in military operations in future.

The question for the French is firstly, what impact will this operation have on their equipment programme? It is almost inevitable that there will be some significant ‘lessons identified’ drawn up from this, and they may well highlight the lack of strategic airlift, reduced sealift, seemingly weak logistical capability. All of these will require rectification, particularly while France retains a network of military facilities across the globe. The question is where does the money come from to fill the gaps? In reality there is unlikely to be a meaningful increase in French defence spending, which in turn means new acquisition will have to be drawn at the expense of more traditional military capability. The fact remains though that at present this operation has perhaps cruelly exposed chinks in French military capability that do need to be addressed.

French vehicles in an RAF C17 (Copyright MOD)

It is possible that President Hollande may try to go down the road of the UK, putting together smaller armed forces, but ones which are incredibly versatile and deployable. This is perhaps a lesson often forgotten by the British, that while we are incredibly quick to slag ourselves off due to a perceived lack of capability, in reality the current UK military structure is probably more deployable and effective than at any point in its history. As an island nation, there is no point in having hundreds of tanks, or dozens of jet aircraft if you don’t have the ability to deploy them to where the threat may be. If you were to look at the immediate post-Cold War armed forces, and compare them to today’s French military, one could easily see similarities. On paper, a large military with complex capabilities, but which struggles to deploy a substantial land force at distance from the home base (e.g. Operation Desert Storm). The defence reviews of the 1990s and 2000s may well have reduced the front line numerical strength of the military, but what is left is far more usable than before. Humphrey continues to maintain that man for man, the UK is probably one of the most effective and capable military forces on the planet for the role in which it wants to employ its armed forces. A lot of what has occurred in Africa could not have happened without the acquisition of capabilities in the 1998 SDR and beyond. Humphrey would go so far as to argue that had this operation occurred 20 years ago, then the UK could probably not have supported it in the way it has today. For confirmation of this, it is well worth reading the latest press release from the MOD (HERE) which talks about the key role played by the UK military in logistical support. This is a capability which did not exist 15 years ago (or rather it did exist until the Belfast aircraft was scrapped in the 1970s, but has since been regenerated!). One rather feels that the French Government is likely to start asking some similarly probing questions of its own level of military capability too.

The final challenge the French will face is determining the point at which they can withdraw from kinetic military operations and instead focus on capacity building. It is ever more challenging to draw a clear line marking the end of war, and start of peace. In Mali, they appear to be having rapid success now against a rebel force which posses little in the way of heavy anti-armour capability, but what happens if there is a proliferation of IEDs or other such capabilities? The French may well find themselves having won a ‘war’ but sucked into a very bloody ‘peace’ without a clear end state. The real worry may be that having extracted themselves from Afghanistan, they now find themselves embroiled in a conflict in their traditional sphere of influence, but with no easy means of extraction, and no clear path to ‘victory’.


  1. Sir Humphrey
    The French have deployed ~3000 men in Afghanistan. Added to which they are helping numerous UN deployments. Otherwise a very interesting piece. this is the time I wish we had gone for the AN-124-210 instead of the C17 - to save money and potentially have more than 8 aircraft. Do you know anything about the loss of two RORO ships recently, have they been sold or only charted?

    1. Hi R-L-C

      Thanks for the comment. The French did deploy 3000 troops in Afghanistan, but they were withdrawn by last year. Also, having shared a room with a French officer while serving in HERRICK, it was very interesting to see and hear first hand about the challenges they faced equipping their military. they were most envious of our current equipment at all levels from boots to airlift.
      As for the AN124 - a great plane, and its been invaluable in charter service, but it would be incredibly difficult for the UK to support a Russian derived aircraft in service. This would establish a dependency on the Russians for supply chains and servicing (I believe all C17s go through the US for deep servicing). The result is that in an international crisis, we are at the whim of nations with whom we are often not aligned to provide spare parts for our strategic airlift.
      Finally I believe RORO 5&6 have been sold out of service. My impression is that they were only very rarely used in MOD support, and that even with 4 hulls left, there is still a good level of capability.

  2. The approach of the previous government would seem in some ways to be comparable to that of the French. For example, huge sums committed to the CVF/F35B project whilst at the same time neglecting or cutting back essential but less glamorous capabilities such as the escort fleet, MCM and the RFA.

  3. Sir Humphrey,

    Do you think the recent French interventions into Mali and Libya is the beginning of a more internationally involved France (and hopefully E.U.)? If so, do you think we'll see a rapid change in French force structure in the coming decade to the British model (something you pointed out as a possible road for France)?



  4. Interesting piece. Whilst it is good to see us retaining both core and niche capabilities, I have to wonder at the general "look at us, we are still great" tone of the piece and have an alternative view to the deployment, seeing it as a live exercise..

    I feel certain that we are on board merely to test the recent blossoming of anglo-french relations rather than of a real necessity as France has been perfectly capable of banging about Africa for decades without our help - or perhaps you consider that without the new entente the French would not have intervened? I would be interested to know if the deployment was implemented using the articles of the 2010 treaty.

    Lets hope it works well and our hand holding works out well - whatever, the outcome will certainly inform the 2015 review.

    1. I do feel there was a need - remember the french also had US support in C17 and a Canadian machine as well.

      The french are experienced yes, but perhaps not on a scale like this before - this is much larger, in terms of landmass and assets and troops deployed. And its here the french indeed struggle; they don't have the airlift capacity at the moment; the C-160 and C-130 fleet is aging fast and is spread thinly, and so are their KC-135's.

      I think without the support of the UK and others, it would have taken them longer to respond; though when they've had their assets in place later and whether that would have been different to the current outcome, I am unsure.

  5. An interesting start to what I suspect Sir Humph will return to several times and based on the old adage that the plan goes to hell-and-gone the minute the first gun goes off.
    The first assumption is, 'Providing this operation goes on for a short amount of time …' If not all bets are off, mainly because of the last assumption that they, ( the UK), become embroiled, 'with no easy means of extraction.' Under these circumstances, the prevailing blackmail of pride will make a dogs breakfast of the exercise as the political will wobbles and the military leadership wilts in Whitehall. I draw your attention to Viet Nam, never mind Afghanistan. Mix in a little bit of continental chicanery and Chinese opportunism and the UK has another fine mess we've gotten ourselves into.
    Sir Humph further observes that our post imperial hubris has left us woefully short of cultural experience on the ground in this new field of operations and the military are not the first to experience panic when this comes home to roost. I saw it in the early nineties when British industry woke up to the fact that we had nobody in the godowns and wharves of the East to tell us what was really going on and it takes years to develop it, if it could be done at all, so training groups are a good start.
    The problem with demonstrations of prowess at a certain useful skill is that the politicians cannot resist using it. The military, 'can do', ethos landed us in the desert without the boots. Montgomery would never stand for it! As Sir Humph points out, 'current UK military structure is probably more deployable and effective than at any point in its history.'
    Pity that, because I think that the current use of it in Africa is premature and causus belli not proven.

  6. The most telling sign is on reading that the UK considered deploying a Joint Force Logistics HQ, which would have been able to co-ordinate the supply and support effort for the operation. The fact that the French potentially needed this capability does not inspire enormous confidence in their ability to support operations globally.

    On the other hand, they didn't need it, and it was pretty late in the day that the idea was mooted. Also, it's far from clear that the French asked, rather than MOD offering. I think there is a certain amount of "oh shit, the Frogs are winning! quick, try to look useful before it's all over" here.

    The point about airlift is a good one; they prioritised developing the industrial capacity at Airbus over getting the capability into the field and the decision bit them in the balls.

    Further, their airmobile operational art and tactics seem to have worked very well indeed and you wonder if they were right to keep Gazelle rather than go all in on high technology.

  7. Airborne operations in the desert, anyone? A spot of red never hurt anybody.
    The value of improvised weapons platforms in Saharan military operations: discuss.

  8. Excellent post Sir H,

    Have to agree with you, looking at the French in this operation casts our own capabilities in a very good light!

    For those referencing French operations in Africa over time, consider that France has been operating at a very low level of intensity, especially in the time domain, for years. That means they can afford to charter transports to fly their men in and use either military or commercial sea lift to bring in vehicles at their leisure.

    Mali was different in that it required a much greater degree of rapidity. There was no large time window in which to shift forces; they moved when they did because they saw the situation in Mali becoming desperate and needed to respond straight away.

    All teeth and no tail clearly isn't a good look for 21st Century militaries, at least when the you know what hits the fan. I think we've positioned ourselves rather well to meet some of the future challenges this globe of ours has to throw at us.

  9. "". I think we've positioned ourselves rather well to meet some of the future challenges this globe of ours has to throw at us.""

    Why should we get involved - we can't afford this - why should we suffer so that other nations can prosper ?

  10. Providing two C-17s and a few training staff is hardly what I'd call "suffering". And the answer is because the world is much more interconnected these days. Just because the knock on effects of certain disruptions etc are not obvious to Sun journalists, does not mean they do not exist.