Lessons of the Mali War

by DAVID AXE

Despite a flurry of attacks pointing to the possibility of drawn-out insurgent fighting in Mali, the French government is still planning on withdrawing its roughly 2,500 troops in the West African country starting in March, potentially bringing to a close the lightning-fast French-led intervention in Islamist-held northern Mali that began on Jan. 11.

Analysts are beginning to consider the lessons of the brief campaign, which saw French and Malian troops, heavily supported by Europe and the U.S., retake the north 10 months after it was seized by militants including fighters from Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. The obvious and most important strategic lesson is that conventional invasions begin wars but don’t end them — and Mali could suffer a bloody insurgency lasting years, with only the Malians and a small West African peacekeeping force to maintain security.

But there are lessons at the operational level, as well. Joseph Henrotin, a Belgian editor, analyst and military-academy instructor, points to the tight coordination of space, air, ground, airborne and special operations forces as an example of something the French did right — and which allowed Paris to quickly dislodge the militants and withdraw speedily. “As African forces begins to arrive in the theater, we have witnessed a really clean model of ‘first in, first out’ compound warfare.”

“What retains my attention is the perfect execution and reproduction of … complex, highly combined operations,” Henrotin adds. He points out that in late January a battalion-sized column with strong air and intelligence support was able to cross 900 kilometers of desert in just 10 days. He singles out the vital intel work of France’s tiny force of Harfang drones, plus Atlantique 2 patrol planes and Helios 2 surveillance satellites, as well as the U.S. and U.K.’s data contributions.

But David Cenciotti, an Italian aviation expert, adds caveats to Henrotin’s assessment. “The French air force operates three Harfang drones,” he writes in an email. “Usually, five drones are required to keep two … orbits active on a 24-hour basis.”

The shortage of drones limited their use to only the most critical missions, Cenciotti adds. “So far, the Harfang drones have been used to support French special missions, providing surveillance in the vicinity of the airfields and cities about to be taken by the paratroopers … You need many more UAVs to look for rebels, track suspicious activity and support convoys/special ops across such large territories as central and northern Mali.”

Moreover, French drones are not armed. “Manned bombers are required to strike ground targets identified by the Harfangs,” Cenciotti explains. By contrast, many American UAVs carry their own weapons and can immediately strike the targets the spot. Adding more drones, and arming them, would mean more and better intelligence and a shorter time between finding and hitting targets.

The French suffered another shortfall. Paris possesses just 14 KC-135 aerial tankers, used to refuel fighters and other planes in mid-flight, extending their range. “Even if only a few combat planes are involved in the air strikes, the French air force is not equipped with a tanker force capable to sustain a limited amount of attack sorties.”

To sustain its aerial campaign, France relied on American KC-135s based in England. Likewise, the French needed airlift support from the U.S., the U.K., Canada and other countries to keep men and supplies flowing into Mali — and the diplomatic arrangements behind the aerial support were often tense and drawn-out.

Unless Paris invests in more drones, tankers and transports, intelligence and logistics could prove a major bottleneck in future interventions.

This entry was posted in David Axe, English, Mali.

6 Responses to Lessons of the Mali War

  1. Pingback: Frenchmen's easy hunting in Mali, Africa - Page 5

  2. Crazyhawk says:

    In the French case, what matters is not the Harfang UAV – too few – it’s the Atlantique 2 MPA (they were 5 on the field). The French use them for their endurance (nearly 18 hours), sensors and weaponry (including GBU-12), a kind of conception already working in the Chadian conflict in the 80’s and pretty much efficient for tracking bad guys.

  3. The top Tuareg officer in Mali’s army urged France on Friday to keep its forces in Mali for as long as it takes to drive out Islamist rebels for good. –> David Lewis, “France’s Mali job ‘not nearly finished': Tuareg officer“, Reuters, 15.02.2013.

  4. In fact one lesson learned of the French Armed Forces seems to be to acquire more drones, eventually to acquire armed drones. Already after the military intervention in Lybia, Chief of the Defense Staff, Admiral Edouard Guillaud, was not against armed drones anymore:

    Pour l’UCAV, je dois reconnaître qu’au départ j’étais contre les drones armés, pour des raisons morales. J’ai été convaincu par l’utilisation de ces drones lors des offensives de Benghazi et de Misrata. J’ai changé d’avis. [...] C’est un avion de combat. La coopération Dassault-Bae [sic] en ce domaine fait du sens. — Admiral Edouard Guillaud, “Comptes rendus de la commission des affaires etranger, de la defense et des forces armees“, Senat, 24.10.2012.

    The French Minister of Defense Jean-Yves Le Drian remarked in an interview at the end of January 2013 that more drones are necessary. Nevertheless, he didn’t say anything about armed drones.

  5. France is deepening its interest in acquiring the Reaper UAV from the U.S., a move that would stir political sensitivities over purchasing a weapons-firing UAV, while Paris readies to cut its defense budget, government and industry sources said. [...] Acquiring the Reaper is politically sensitive because the version France wants is capable of carrying weapons. Britain is the only European country that operates an armed Reaper model; Italy flies a surveillance version of the UAV. — Jorge Benitez, “Mali mission spurs French interest in purchasing armed UAV“, NATOSource, Atlantic Council, 23.02.2013.

  6. France has formally requested to buy 16 General-Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc. (GA-ASI) MQ-9 Reaper Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPA) from the U.S., a sale that could top US$1.5 billion. France had allocated $250 million to buy the first two Reapers ordered in May 2013, to be delivered from production lots destined for the US Air Force. These drones will be delivered by the end of this year to fulfill urgent requirements for persistent, long-range ISR support of the French led operation in Mali. The remaining 10-14 (depending on the actual order) aircraft will be shipped in late 2015 or early 2016. To maintain its ISR capability, France plans to extend the support contract with EADS, maintaining the Heron I ‘Harfang’ in service until 2016. — Tamir Eshel, “US Agency Details French RPA (UAS) Procurement Package“, Defense Update, 28.06.2013.

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