How the French Air War in Mali Really Went Down
Launched on Jan. 11, 2013, at the request of the Malian authorities and the United Nations to help the local army stop the advance of rebel groups towards southern Mali, the French military campaign in West Africa, dubbed “Operation Serval” kicked off with a raid performed by attack helicopters to stop the progression of a column of jihadist elements enroute to Konna, near Mopti in the center of the country.
According to the French MoD, that on Jan. 12 released the first official information about the French activities in Africa, this first action was led by Gazelle helicopters with the 4ème Régiment d’Hélicoptères des Forces spéciales (RHFS), armed with HOT missiles and 20 mm caliber guns and allowed the destruction of four vehicles and led to the withdrawal of the column.
During the raid, one of the choppers was hit and a French pilot was wounded by small arms fire and died at a local hospital.
However, the air campaign to support the Malian army did not only involve light attack choppers.
On the night between January 11 and 12, four Mirage 2000D jets of the Epervier group, conducted air strikes in the north of the country. The attack planes took off from N’Djamena, in Chad, and were supported by two tankers C135.
Two Mirage F1 CRs, six Mirage 2000Ds, three C135 tankers, one C130 and one C160 Transall were deployed to N’Djamena. Rafale multirole fighters were immediately put on heightened alert status and readied for deployment while Tigre attack helicopters were dispatched to Ouagadougou, in Burkina Faso.
About 200 soldiers belonging to the ground component of the Epervier were transferred to the Malian capital, Bamako, by means of C-130 Hercules and C-160 Transall airlifters.
Jan. 13 saw the first involvement of the Rafale combat planes in the French air campaign in Mali.
Four “omnirole” jets from Saint Dizier airbase, took off from their base and, supported by two C-135FR tankers, attacked rebel’s training camps, infrastructure, and logistic deposits before recovering to N’Djamena airbase, in Chad.
Although it was later denied, the aircraft crossed the Algerian airspace on their way to Mali thanks to an agreement with Algeria, that has authorized unlimited access to fly over its territory to the French government.
The Rafales carried three fuel tanks, six GBU-49 5(00-lb Enhanced Paveway II GPS/INS-equipped GBU-12/B Laser Guided Bomb variants) or six AASM (Armement Air-Sol Modulaire – Air-to-Ground Modular Weapon) along with the Damocles pod.
According to the Rafale News blog, this was the first time that the Rafale used the dual mode (laser/GPS) GBU-49 guided bomb during a war mission as the integration of this kind of weapon was only recently completed.
Based on the video released by the French MoD after the raid and showing the four jets landing in Chad at the end of their strike mission, 21 weapons were dropped during the attack.
After a pretty intense start, the war against rebels in Mali turned, at least momentarily, into a low intensity air campaign.
On Jan. 14, just 8 missions against about 12 targets mainly located around Diabali were flown by the French combat aircraft supported by C135FR tankers. These included reconnaissance missions by Mirage F1CR that had relocated from N’Djamena, Chad, to Bamako, in Mali.
After releasing 21 PGMs (Precision Guided Munitions) out of 24 carried (6 for each plane) on the first long range raid launched directly from France, the four Rafale jets of the EC 1/7 “Provence” and 2/30 “Normandie-Niémen” deployed to N’Djamena carried only two or three bombs on the subsequent missions: a sign that, in spite of a “well-armed, well-trained and experienced” enemy, the amount of available targets on the ground did not require the aircraft to fly with a full load of six GBU-12/49 or AASMs.
Still, the buildup continues with more countries already contributing with support forces, or about to. Among them, the U.K., that has made available two C-17 airlifters (and maybe drones in the future), Denmark that sent transport aircraft, Canada that has provided one C-17, Belgium that is about to dispatch one C-130. Togo, Benin, Burkina Faso, Niger, Nigeria, Mauritania and Senegal that will send some hundreds military.
Since Jan. 15, the information officially released by the French MoD has become scarce with less details and figures. It looks like reporters from all around the world either embedded with Paris Special Forces or simply stationed around the main bases in West Africa were denied the possibility to provide much detail about the ongoing Operation Serval for OPSEC issues. Therefore, the only way to get a glimpse of what is going on in the Mali Air War is almost exclusively through the images and footage made available by the French Air Force and Army on social media.
As of Jan. 16 the unconfirmed Order of Battle of the French forces in Mali was made of:
4x Rafale, 2x C-135FR, 1x A310, 1x C130, 3x C-160 Transal, 3x Mirage 2000D, 1x CN235 at N’Djamena, Chad.
2x Mirage F1CR, 8x Gazelle, 3x Mirage 2000D, 4x Super Puma at Bamako, Mali
2x Harfang drones at Niamey, Niger.
Some Atlantique II MPA (Maritime Patrol Aircraft) at Dakar, Senegal, performing ISR.
As of Jan. 18, the French contingent has flown 110 sorties over Mali, including 70 strike sorties. Nigeria Air Force has offered four combat planes to support the operation.
According to a U.S. official who spoke on condition of anonymity to the AFP on Jan. 12, the Pentagon would be evaluating the possible contribution to the French air campaign in Mali.
Intelligence gathering platforms, surveillance drones, aerial refueling tankers: these are the support options considered by Washington.
Even if it's still unclear whether France or Mali have officially requested U.S. help, what is certain is that the U.S. has never ceased to pinpoint rebel positions and monitor their movements in the area.
In the wake of the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi that cost the life of the U.S. Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens on Sept. 11, 2011, the U.S. amassed Special Operations planes and helicopters in the Mediterranean area, and intensified ISR (Intelligence Surveillance Reconnaissance) activities in North and Central Africa from Sigonella, Sicily, Rota, Spain, and Souda Bay, Crete.
Whilst armed Predators followed insurgents in Cyrenaica, eastern Libya, Global Hawks flew high-altitude, long-range missions from the Mediterranean Sea, to Diego Garcia and back. Some of such missions went (and still go) well inside Africa, and also in Northern Mali controlled by three Islamist armed groups, including Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
However, not only unmanned platforms have been operating in the region.
Whereas EP-3Es conducted SIGINT (Signal Intelligence) missions from their standard bases in the Mediterranean area, several special “non-standard aviation assets” are based on a network of scarcely known airports across Africa: Uganda, South Sudan, Ethiopia, Djibouti and, above all, Burkina Faso, neighboring Mali.
Some U-28As are reportedly based at Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso capital.
From there, these aircraft (a military version of the civil PC-12 purchased at a unit price of 3.5 million USD from the Swiss company Pilatus) have been flying surveillance missions in the region, pursuing rebels pick ups in the desert and possibly eavesdropping suspect radio communications.
Other special operations planes (namely, some M-28 Skytrucks) that are used to carry special operators to places with unprepared landing strips and capable of performing special forces insertions and extractions in missions unsuitable for larger special ops aircraft (as the C-130 or the C-17), were spotted transiting through the U.K. on their way to a Middle East or African airport last year.
In order to keep a “low profile” and appear similar to general aviation aircraft during their clandestine missions, most of these special planes flying in Africa are painted in light gray or in white, as civilian planes, and sometimes they even carry civilian registrations.
Anyway, regardless what the official sources say, the U.S. is not evaluating whether to send reconnaissance planes or drones over Mali to collect intel data that could be useful for the French Air Force air strikes: Such manned and unmanned aircraft have been operating and spying over the West Africa country for months.
Therefore, since Paris is probably already exploiting intel provided by Washington, what it needs the most from the U.S. is a bunch of aerial refuelers and cargo planes to sustain the air campaign.
Source: David Cenciotti, The Aviationist (businessinsider.com) News - 20 January 2013
Photo: The French Air Force Rafale Fighter Aircraft (Photo by Sirpa Air via The Aviationist)