February 25, 2013
Credit: Credit: Dassault
For Operation Serval, the French military action to rid Mali of Islamist insurgents, Paris has sent 3,500 troops and 20 combat helicopters to its former West African colony—more of either than France has deployed in 10 years of military involvement in Afghanistan. Another 870 men and their equipment are arriving this month, including French VBCI armored fighting vehicles transported by the amphibious assault ship Dixmude to the Senegalese capital, Dakar. And none of this was planned months or even days in advance.
France is the only country that can move so many troops with their materiel so fast to this desolate part of the southern Sahara, because it has permanent or semi-permanent bases of troops in its former colonies of Senegal, Gabon, Ivory Coast, Chad and Djibouti. Thus, less than 5 hr. after the order was given to send in French special forces and the air force, the first attacks were launched against insurgent positions.
From Chad came a marine infantry company of the 21st RIMA (Regiment d'infanterie de marine), headquartered in Frejus, France; a half squadron of the Foreign Legion's 1st REC (regiment etranger de cavalerie), headquartered in Orange, France; and a command post. From the Ivory Coast came a joint battalion combat team armed by the 3rd RPIMA (Regiment parachutistes d'infanterie de marine) headquartered in Carcassonne, France; and the 1st RHP (Regiment de hussards parachutistes) headquartered in Tarbes, France. And an infantry company from the 2nd RIMA Le Mans was boarding a flight to Mali 5 hr. after the initial whistle blew.
The result of this apparently smooth and speedy mission is that the hard-core militants quickly got the message: They could neither stop nor slow the French military machine. The insurgents' Toyota pickup trucks, Soviet-made BTR eight-wheel armored vehicles and 122-mm BM-21 truck-mounted multiple rocket launchers proved to be no match for the firepower of Rafale combat aircraft and Tiger and Gazelle helicopters. French columns of armored vehicles deployed over several hundred kilometers from the Ivory Coast capital of Abidjan to Bamako, Mali. Troops and equipment were dropped by parachute in the dead of night.
There was effective coordination between special forces and regular troops, along with intelligence-gathering by ground units, signals intelligence, satellites, reconnaissance aircraft and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV). All of this activity reassured the civilian population, which was 96% behind the French operation, according to poll conducted by the Al Jazeera news network.
The French lost one Gazelle helicopter pilot to a hemorrhage caused by a small-arms bullet on the first day. Enemy losses were estimated at 200-300 early on by French defense officials, but were not corroborated by independent sources or the insurgents.
But a senior French officer tells Aviation Week privately that even if the insurgents are “a little different from the Taliban in Afghanistan, less well-organized, less tough, they are nevertheless war-hardened, hidden, dispersed.” They have caused trouble for the lightweight, unarmored Gazelles that have taken quite a few shots. “They don't have our means of communications, but they are no imbeciles, and warmongering is their basic trade—they don't really know how to do anything else.”