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.