Murielle Delaporte, a respected French military analyst, was embedded with French forces in Mali for 10 days in late April and offers this early look at lessons learned by France, and by her allies.
French forces appear to have succeeded in Mali. They blunted the mad progress of Islamist extremist forces during Operation Serval and drove them back to the northern mountains – where some of whom blew themselves up rather than surrender when faced with defeat.
The first phase of Operation Serval, as the French incursion into Mali was known, was a genuine military success. Maybe, as one former French Foreign Legion officer observed, Serval stands as one of the few French military victories since the Cold War.
During three months of fighting France lost six soldiers and suffered 200 wounded, while forces from neighboring Chad — who reportedly fought with verve and effectiveness — lost more.
France had other military successes, like Harmattan, last year, but Mali is a curious blend of the past and the future, a curious mix of a fully Franco-French operation on the one hand especially on the ground, and a new type of ad hoc international coalition — especially in the air.
As one French logistician pointed out, comparing Mali with Afghanistan, “France has to learn to fight alone again.” On the other hand, as French air force officials in Mali stress, international partners, including the United States for the first time, were comfortable working under French operational command because of years of joint training and increased command and control (C2) interoperability.
For Western military powers facing increasing budgetary pressure, this reflects the growing dilemma between keeping enough capabilities if not to fight alone, at least to maintain maximum autonomy, but they also are re-norming everything to be able to fight smoothly within a coalition. For France, who fully re-entered NATO not that long ago, Operation Serval has been the pretext to deepen new commonalities in unexplored areas such as field landing for instance.
Very few NATO countries have the capabilities to carry out an operation like Serval, but France could not have done it without allied contribution. Three allied capabilities were crucial to France: airlift, airborne tankers and ISR.
France boasted five factors that helped them block the jihadists from reaching Bamako and (at least temporarily) disorganize AQIM and the Mujao movements by killing some 600 terrorists and destroying arsenals and IED factories.
1. A rapid political decision-making process
Within hours of the French president’s decision to act, French jets were in a position a few hours later to take off from Saint Dizier, fly almost 10 hours and engage in a series of air strikes in northern Mali. The French political system, in contrast to Germany’s for instance, allows immediate military action, a facility made possible by the country’s constant state of alert associated with how France handles its nuclear status.
2. The quality of the French commanders.
From the closest advisers to the defense minister to the operation’s commander, the generals all are acquainted with special forces operations, which gave the tone of Serval from the outset : quick, massive, targeted and sustained. The idea was to maintain full pressure and exhaust the adversary who, fled to the Adrar mountain sanctuaries where he fought to the death, preferring to trigger their explosive belts rather than surrendering.
3. Mobilization skills
To deliver such a massive response over several months, the French military had to mobilize a whole array of capabilities, ranging from special forces to air support (air force jets and army helicopters), to logistic support that was especially crucial in Mali given the distances and its lack of infrastructure and local resources.
4. Allied airlift support
France’s lack of strategic airlift capabilities was partly compensated for by the presence of French support structures in neighbouring countries, which were complemented by the ability to work with allies who provided C17s, C130s and CASAs.
5. Resilience of French military forces
To get some idea of Mali’s harsh environment, consider that special forces operating in Tessalit left their boots open because of high temperatures and the way the soles of their boots (and probably souls as well after a while…) were destroyed by volcanic soil, or the necessity for ammunition specialists to sleep in containers – withstanding up to 50 degree Celsius temperatures during the day — because of the threat of wondering snakes.
These capabilities just do not come with a magic wand and require years, even decades, of hard training with a knowledge passed on from generation to generation.
Many French military had the feeling they were walking in their ancestors’ shoes as they operated in former French military facilities such as the logistics bataillon in Gao, where French forces in Africa supplied the Free French from 1941 to 1945. (One envisions the French and Malian equivalent of Rick and Louie strolling down the airstrip, speaking of ”the beginning of a beautiful friendship” as a French Rafale stands ready for takeoff.)
What may be the lasting lesson learned from Mali? Recently, French Chief of Staff, Admiral Guillaud, testified before the French parliamentary defense commission. Operation Serval, he told them, was the practical application of a new Golden Rule for French forces: “First to enter, and first to leave the theater” of operation to “avoid a solely and long-lasting national military involvement.”
Murielle Delaporte is editor of the French magazine Soutien Logistique Défense and a contributor to Second Line of Defense.