January 21, 2013
Credit: Credit: Airbus Military
Amy Svitak Paris and Tony Osborne London
France's intervention in Mali is testing its legacy air transport fleet as the French air force supports ground forces fighting an advance by Al Qaeda-linked insurgents toward the Malian capital.
French C-160 Transalls, C-130 Hercules and Airbus A310 and A340 aircraft have been tasked with strategic transport of troops and equipment in support of the operation, which President Francois Hollande initiated Jan. 11 after an international mandate to prevent a terrorist takeover of Mali had been slow in taking shape, and because evidence from surveillance indicated a massive move toward its capital city, Bamako.
Named “Operation Serval” after an African wildcat, the French campaign began with about 200 French troops supporting Malian ground forces aided by airstrikes that targeted positions in the rebel-held north, a desert region roughly the size of France. Initially the air raids employed Gazelle helicopter gunships armed with HOT (long-range anti-tank) missiles and 20-mm cannons, and Dassault Mirage 2000Ds and Mirage F1-CR reconnaissance aircraft backed by Boeing KC-135 refueling tankers. On Jan. 13, France sent four Rafale fighters to conduct airstrikes in northeastern Mali before joining six Mirage 2000Ds and five KC-135s at France's N'Djamena air base in Chad.
After several days of bombing failed to halt the insurgent advance, Operation Serval escalated with the Jan. 15 announcement by French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian that French troop levels in the region would rise to 2,500, including 800 in Mali.
In the preceding days he said Paris had requested logistical support from allies to bolster a strategic air bridge, but only the U.K. was quick to respond, furnishing two C-17 strategic transports Jan. 13 to deliver heavy equipment and supplies to the land-locked country. Dubbed Operation Newcombe, the British aircraft are now in-theater, though one of the C-17s was grounded in France for more than a day due to an undisclosed technical issue.
Le Drian says a number of allied nations are mobilized to offer “concrete military assistance,” including Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Germany, Italy, Poland, the U.K. and the U.S.
“This is necessary because airlift is an area where France must improve its capabilities for transporting troops and equipment,” says Alain Dupas, an aerospace and defense consultant based in Paris. He notes that when the A400M becomes available “the situation will be significantly different.”