Behind the Mali headlines, an issue of airlift

RAF C17 Transport Aircraft. Photo MoD under an Open Government Licence

By Douglas BarrieJames Hackett and Henry Boyd, Defence and Military Analysis Programme

Two weeks after sending troops to Mali to repel an advance by Islamist rebels, France has enjoyed much tactical success. French and Malian forces have retaken Timbuktu and Gao, and are now reported to have reached the last Islamist stronghold, Kidal. The main challenges ahead include sustaining these gains, bolstering the Malian military and improving governance.

But these tactical achievements come despite a continuing fragility within some French military capabilities: the limited availability of so-called ‘air platform force enablers’ in general, and a paucity of strategic airlift in particular. This general shortfall afflicts many other European countries, and in the case of strategic airlift is only now being fixed.

France’s armed forces have demonstrated rapid deployment, flexibility and mobility on the ground; they have planned and quickly executed air and ground missions requiring logistics support at distance. However, nearly two years after French forces were heavily involved in operations over Libya, Operation Serval in Mali is also highlighting areas in which France needs assistance.

France’s ability to rapidly deploy combat power has been aided in Serval by units and equipment at France’s African bases, including aircraft at Chad and Senegal. These bases have also allowed France to forward deploy combat aircraft. In the Libya operation, by contrast, France did not deploy ground units in number, and combat aircraft were able to fly on missions either from France’s aircraft carrier, or from airbases in France and Italy.

Given the distances involved in the Mali operation, France’s small fleet of KC-135 tanker aircraft was always going to be stretched, France’s C-160 tactical tanker/transports being of limited range. So, Washington’s agreement on Saturday (26 January) to provide US KC-135s to support the French mission will help French aviation to maintain a high sortie rate. This US support was available from the beginning during the Libya campaign.

Additional capacity has also been welcome in tactical intelligence, where the UK has deployed one of its five Sentinel ISR aircraft to Dakar, Senegal, to assist operations in Mali. Yesterday, London also offered to send up to 200 personnel to West Africa to train forces for the African-led International Support Mission to Mali. Seventy other British personnel are involved in the Sentinel deployment to Senegal, while an additional 40 may be included in the EU military training mission to Mali.

The most obvious concern, however, is airlift. Moving additional troops and equipment from France has highlighted Paris’s – and Europe’s – continuing lack of strategic lift.

In the first week of Operation Serval, France looked to the UK, Europe’s only operator of Boeing C-17s (pictured above), for assistance. It garnered support from Canada and the US for additional C-17 airlift. Private-sector Antonov An-124s were also used. The overall effort was coordinated by the European Air Transport Command which, despite its name, only covers France, Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands. French Lockheed Martin C-130 Hercules and C-160 Transall medium and tactical transport aircraft, as well as a Belgian C-130 and two German C-160s, have also been used. French air force Airbus A340 and A330 passenger aircraft transported military personnel. Intra-theatre air transport includes French Army Puma helicopters, with reconnaissance and fire support provided by Gazelle and Tiger helicopters.

One notable absentee is the A400M, an Airbus aircraft that should revamp Europe’s ability to provide rapid strategic lift in coming years. Although the first serial production aircraft was rolled out in French air-force colours earlier this month, it will not be delivered until mid-2013 – the first of 50 the air force has on order.

The seven-European-nation programme is at least four years late and is substantially over budget, but once it enters the inventories of the partners it ought to finally address a long-standing capability gap.

However, the A400M delay shows how procurement problems could be more than simply a costly embarrassment. That’s because European airlift capacity will also come under increasing strain during 2013–14, with the withdrawal of most combat forces from Afghanistan. In the midst of an Afghan drawdown, London may have found it considerably more difficult to free up C-17s to support the French mission, and large commercial transport carriers may also have been busier.


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