[UPDATED 9:55 am with Facebook message allegedly from Harroun]
France has been hailed by the people of Mali for driving al Qaeda-linked thugs from their country. Malians greeted French President Francois Hollande with cheers of Vive la France when he recently visited Timbuktu. But the rebels and al Qaeda are not yet crushed, though they have been forced to cede most inhabited territory. The mix is getting richer now with kidnappings that appear to be in retaliation for the French operations claiming seven French tourists, including three children, in northwest Cameroon and seven foreign workers in Nigeria. Murielle Delaporte, a respected French defense analyst, analyzes just what has made the French operations so successful so far. This article includes an exclusive interview with the commander of French helicopter forces in Mali. The Editor.
The Mali operation was seen as requiring the rapid insertion of force at the moment when the adversary had begun to aggregate force. The French approach is very much about how to intervene and to trigger coalition operations in order to stabilize the situation with regional partners, rather than to simply stay in place for a long time.
It is “shock and awe” to deter the enemy and to trigger space for coalition success, not “shock and awe” for the sake of staying. As part of the support effort, allies – the US and Canada, as well as many European nations such as Britain, Belgium, Denmark and Germany – have been involved as well. [The photo above demonstrates this. It depicts a US Air Force KC-135 refueling a French fighter during the Mali operations. The Editor.]
But the French effort shows the importance of clear command and control as well as national control over force projection and autonomous capabilities. “Never Without Support” was the praise given by British ground troops to helicopter support during their missions in Afghanistan. The 4,000 French forces currently involved in Mali in the fight against Al-Qaeda affiliated insurgents (more forces than in Afghanistan) are applying this principle to the letter – and in all senses of the words – both at the tactical and strategic levels.
Shock and Awe The French way: Joint Tactical Support at Its Best
A rapid and massive offensive was generated to block the insurgents from reaching Bamako who were within several days reach of the capital.
A month later, as the commander of French Army Aviation in Mali explained in a recent interview: “The enemy has been taken by surprise and is now destabilized. Because of the lightning speed of the maneuver by the Serval force, the insurgents are now fleeing and not willing to fight, as they did not expect such concentration and mobility above their heads.”
Even though the war has, of course, not been won yet, the operation of joint air and ground raids to unloose the Gordian knot of AQIM (Al Qaeda In Maghreb), and other insurgents groups, has been crucial. This effort has been possible due to several factors: The first is the speed of the French forces and the ability to react in a matter of hours as far as air operations were concerned.
For example, on the Air Force side, the very first strikes by the Rafale fighters taking off from the FAB Saint Dizier were done thanks to an unprecedented nine hours and thirty five minutes flight involving five air-to-air refueling.
On the Army side, it took only two days for the French Army Air Mobility Group (GAM for Groupe Aéromobile) to be operational and in autonomous operation after a strategic airlift from the South of France to the capital of Mali involving close to 300 men and 20 helos. As a French officer involved in the operation said: “After leaving Bamako for Sevare five hundred kilometers further on January 26th, then leaving again for Gao on February sixth, five hundred kilometers further, I have available the support tools of nearly a full regiment ranging from my air control tower… to spares allowing me to last for months.”
The rapid surge of the Serval force, which should soon count in particular three battalion-sized Task Forces (GTIA or Groupement Tactique Interarmes), has also been facilitated by France’s historic presence and defense commitments in this part of the world (e.g. the Epervier operation in Chad since 1986 and the UN Unicorn operation in Ivory Coast since 2002).
Among the reasons for this fast and effective deployment of forces was France’s ability to leverage national assets based in nearby African countries. Mobility and concentration of forces have also been rendered possible by good command control, bolstered by joint training and experience between the French Air Force (Rafale and Mirage 2000D fighters and N’Djamena-based JFACC), the Navy (with the amphibious assault ship BPC Dixmude bringing ground elements ashore, as well as the Atlantique 2 maritime patrol aircraft crucial to coordinate CAS operations between Army aviation and ground troops) and the Army.
Army helicopters were able to carry out “reconnaissance or raid offensives as well as support operations, such as fire support for the 2e REP (2nd Foreign Legion parachute regiment) in Timbuktu so it could regroup in the best conditions possible,” according to a French military source in Mali. This airborne operation was the first of this size since Kolweizi in 1978. A second airborne operation was successfully conducted on February 7 in northern Mali by French special operation forces as well as French and Chadian conventional forces to secure Tessalit.
Not Fighting Alone: the Need for Speed in Strategic Support
From the beginning, the French intervention was not seen as an isolated event, but as one designed to clear the path for coalition forces to take over the mission. For example, Chadian armed forces indeed amount to 1,800 men and are part of a total African force of 4,100 being currently mobilized to fight along the side of the French troops and gradually take over as early as the end of next month.
A growing number of allied countries’ are offering logistic and support assets to help sustain French and African armed forces’ sustainability in a theater characterized by vast distances and few roads or other basic infrastructure. Transport aircraft and tankers have been sent early on by the United States and European countries, while the Eindhoven-based European Air Transport Command is increasing its involvement with the participation of a Dutch KDC-10 and, soon, it will be joined by a German A310 MRTT tanker.
In other words, France’s goal is to start reversing the balance between supported and supporting forces as early as the end of March in a secure, responsible and coordinated manner to prevent the “Afghanisation” of the conflict feared by many. From this point of view, European military training of local forces, which is also kicking in, will also be a key factor to make sure African ground troops have the best chances to secure the whole land of Mali.
Recent progress in Somalia with the EU training mission (EUTM) now under the command of Brigadier General Gerald Aherne from Ireland (in two years 3,000 Somali troops have been formed in police and anti-terrorist missions) feeds the hope among allies that, after more than a decade of ground entanglements, a long term success of a new type of lighter footprint coalition support is attainable.
Dave Deptula, the first general charged with overseeing drones and the Air Force general in command of the Air Operations Center when the first Predator fired a Hellfire missile, steps right into the debate about whether death by drone is moral, legal or qualitatively different from other weapons that strike from afar. He says drone critics don’t understand that they work, cause fewer accidental deaths and are more precisely controllable than any other tactical weapons we’ve got. Read on. The Editor.
Many commentators are questioning the legality, efficacy and appropriateness of using Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPA)-also referred to inaccurately as “drones.” The truth is, RPA are the most precise means of employing force in a way that reduces collateral damage and minimizes casualties.
The critics don’t understand the reality of “drone” operations, nor do they comprehend that our adversaries are most certainly conducting an aggressive perception management campaign on this issue – a very effective one if the recent hysteria over RPA use is a measure of effectiveness. In military parlance, a “drone” is a flying target.
The media like to use it because it is only one word and they don’t have to explain what a “Remotely Piloted Aircraft” is. But the word “drone” connotes a degree of autonomy that RPAs simply do not possess. It takes over 200 people to operate a MQ-1 Predator or MQ-9 Reaper RPA orbit for 24 hours. This little-known fact among the RPA naysayers is one of the reasons that the use of “drones” allows for more ethical oversight than any other weapon. Drones allow us significantly greater control, oversight, and review before a shot is fired than occurs using manned aircraft or other operations conducted by soldiers, sailors, airmen or Marines.
The persistence, situational awareness, and degree of control possible with an RPA allows for the immediate suspension of lethal engagement if circumstances change or questions emerge – even after a weapon has been released or launched. RPA are networked aircraft and their data can reach any spot on earth in less than two seconds.
Hence, in addition to the hundreds of operational, maintenance, and intelligence personnel, many lawyers and senior leadership are directly involved with RPA lethal engagements. That kind of oversight is rarely, if ever, the case with the use of manned aircraft or with boots on the ground or sailors at sea. The power of our intelligence networks allows RPA essentially to carry around their own command and analysis center and legal counsel as an integral part of their payload.
How can I argue that RPA are the most precise means of employing force in a way that reduces collateral damage and minimizes casualties? The accuracy of weapons employed from a RPA is nominally less than 10 feet. The accuracy of a 155mm howitzer is around 1,000 feet, and mortar accuracy ranges from 200 to 800 feet.
None of the procedures governing the use of artillery, mortars, missiles from ships, or manned aircraft employ the oversight associated with the use of networked RPA. Furthermore, every second of an RPA’s high-fidelity video footage, communication, and aircraft parameters is recorded and stored for very precise review and evaluation. This, ironically, is one of the reasons there is so much attention on “drones.” Imagine if one could see the results of every missile, artillery, mortar, and rifle round fired.
A principal value of RPA is that they provide a perspective only available from operating in the air and persistence to a degree much greater than an aircraft occupied by a person, like the F-18 or F-16. The drones’ ability to fly over one spot for a very long time allows those flying it to observe, evaluate, and act very quickly, or to take all the time necessary to be sure they can do what they really want to do.
That precise engagement is simply not available to other types of weapons. Several well meaning, but misguided, commentators are calling for a new doctrine to guide “drone” warfare. Some have even gone so far to suggest that, “We are in the same position now, with drones, that we were with nuclear weapons in 1945.” (That’s David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker). “Drones” do not define warfare. They are tools used as part of its conduct.
Accordingly, they should be regarded and employed as all other “tools” of war are, in accordance with the laws of armed conflict and congruent with the Geneva Conventions. With respect to warnings on consequences, some have gone so far to postulate that the use of an RPA allows the adversary to paint us as “distant, high-tech, amoral purveyor[s] of death.” Doing so ignores the real motivation of our adversaries in decrying their use.
A significant advantage of RPA is that they allow us to project power without projecting vulnerability-something that can’t be done when ground forces are put in harm’s way. This capability provides us with an asymmetric advantage that our adversaries find difficult to counter. Because RPA are so effective, our enemies try to manipulate us to do what they cannot — limit the use of one of our asymmetric advantages – by spreading falsehoods that “drones” cause reckless collateral damage or are somehow not accurate.
The fact of the matter is that “drones” are one of, if not the most, accurate means of employing significant force in our military arsenal. Airpower, in the form of RPA, is the one allied capability that the Taliban in Afghanistan, Al Qaeda in Pakistan, Yemen, and around the globe cannot defeat directly. By creating international focus on civilian casualties, and attributing those casualties to “drones” vice the biggest cause of those casualties-themselves, they create political and societal pressure to limit the use of “drones.”
Adversary falsehoods regarding inaccuracy and collateral damage divert attention from the fact that the massive intentional damage, intentional killing of civilians, and intentional violations of international law are being conducted by Al Qaeda and the Taliban – not U.S. “drones.” Adding to the desired effects of adversary actions in decrying the use of “drones” is the inordinate amount of time and concern spent in recent commentary regarding the “rights” of traitors to America.
This “discourse” obscures the fact that Al Qaeda is at war with the U.S. That makes any member of Al Qaeda – U.S. citizen or not — an enemy combatant, and that makes them subject to engagement using lethal force. An American passport doesn’t allow anyone to take up arms against his own country and remain immune.
The recent frenzy associated with the supposed legal rights of traitors is a distraction from the fact that the Taliban are responsible for the death and maiming of most of the innocent men, women, and children in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Another disturbing implication of many of the “anti-drone” commentaries is that our standard of warfare should come from some form of “fairness” in dealing with our opponents.
War is not about “fairness;” it’s about inflicting damage on your enemy without suffering damage yourself. RPA provide one of those asymmetries for the U.S. today. The use of RPA has substantially boosted our effectiveness in accomplishing our critical national security objectives – with zero RPA operator casualties, at significantly less cost, and with significantly less collateral damage than have the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan over the past decade.
The anti-drone crowd keeps saying how much ill-will drones generate, but never discuss how much ill will the alternatives generate. If the people harboring Al Qaeda around the world don’t like drones, do you think they like U.S. boots on the ground more? That said, while introducing enormous capability and employment advantages, RPAs are not a panacea for warfare or replacements for our military services. But let’s not assist our adversaries by limiting our most effective weapon against Al Queda and the Taliban — the asymmetric advantage of our use of RPA.
Dave Deptula, a member of the Breaking Defense Board of Contributors, is a retired Air Force lieutenant general. He was the first general in charge of Air Force intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance, which included Remotely Piloted Aircraft. He directed air operations for Operation Enduring Freedom during the first combat use of a weapon fired from a drone in 2001. He is currently an independent consultant and senior military scholar at the Air Force Academy. Keep reading →
As 2013 hurtles towards us, Breaking Defense has asked the experts on our Board of Contributors to forecast the key defense issues of the coming year (click here for the full 2013 forecast series). We kick off the series with this essay from Rachel Kleinfeld, founding president of the aggressively progressive Truman National Security Project.
In a world of tumult, which national security problems will really matter in 2013? Keep reading →
Rising Republican star Sen. Kelly Ayotte said her “libertarian” and “isolationist” Senate colleagues who would cut defense spending to help solve the budget deficit have abandoned the principles of conservative icon Ronald Reagan.
Speaking at the conservative American Enterprise Institute late Wednesday afternoon, the junior Senator from New Hampshire said that “with the issues that we face, the challenges that we face, I think that none of us in this room would say that this would be a time… that we should be taking significant defense cuts.” Keep reading →
WASHINGTON: In lawless, inaccessible regions of the world, drone strikes are America’s least-worst option for pursuing terrorists, a panel of experts agreed today — and many of the civilians whose deaths are blamed on US drones were actually killed by local factions on the ground or never existed at all.
“They are actually our least horrible option,” said Prof. Christine Fair, a South Asia expert at Georgetown University who has made many trips to Pakistan, including to the badlands known formally as the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). “I am… within the strict case of FATA, a drone proponent,” she said, speaking Monday afternoon at the American Security Project in Washington, DC. And while most Pakistanis deplore the drones when polled about them, Fair added that FATA residents she spoke to who have first-hand knowledge of specific strikes and who really died in them are, “very positive…. They know who’s being killed.” Keep reading →
A year has passed since Congress passed and President Obama signed into law the Budget Control Act-the legislation mandating sequestration. Funding cuts that once seemed politically remote now loom large for leaders increasingly anxious about the impact $1.2 trillion in automatic budget reductions will have upon their respective districts and states. An estimated two million jobs at risk is a possibility no lawmaker can ignore.
Sequestration threatens the country’s ability to allow those in uniform to do their jobs. To understand what it means in real terms, look at the Air Force. Over the past decade, the service has been hit with numerous cuts and now the 2013 budget risks pushing airmen over the brink. There comes a point when people simply cannot do more with less. Unless Congress passes a sustainable and viable alternative to the Budget Control Act, challenges arising in the Air Force will be mirrored throughout the Army, Navy and Marine Corps — curtailing the number of key policy options upon which our nation’s leaders depend. Keep reading →
San Antonio: The Pentagon’s intelligence leader said today that the U.S. has tracked and killed half of al Qaeda’s top 20 leaders this year, leaving only one of the terrorist group’s original leaders alive.Al Qaeda operatives “feel besieged by the U.S,” said Defense Undersecretary for Intelligence Mike Vickers. The persistent U.S counter terror efforts have eliminated Al Qaeda operatives “at a rate far faster than they can replace them.” The terror group is in “the worst shape” it’s been since the U.S. expelled it from Afghanistan soon after the 9/11 attacks.
“We seek nothing less than the complete defeat of al Qaeda,” Vickers said in address at the annual Geoint conference.
A key to this success has been highly accurate targeting data and other intelligence made possible by the National Reconnaissance Office’s spy satellites — referred to by Vickers as “national technical means” — and other intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets such as the MC-12 Liberty program. The NRO’s satellite are “a critical, critical” tool in the fight against terrorists.
That ISR surge has also helped reverse the Taliban’s “momentum,” Vickers said.Keep reading →
Washington: A number of sophisticated shoulder-fired missiles looted from Libyan armories have already been smuggled out of the North African country and we don’t know where they’ve gone, a top U.S. general said today.
Africa Command chief Gen. Carter Ham said his organization picked up “worrying indicators” that some of the unaccounted for Libyan stockpiles of Grinch SA-24 and SA-7 shoulder-fired rockets are already gone, Ham said today at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Keep reading →