Sustaining Operations in the Sahel

By By R&WI Staff | April 1, 2016
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U.S. and French special forces perform air-to-water qualification training with a French army SA330 Puma near Camp Lemonnier, Djibouti in 2013. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Defense Dept.

Years of counterterrorism and nation-building operations in Africa’s Sahel region have honed the French army air corps’ combat tactics and multinational operational skills and its ability (and that of Airbus Helicopters) to support helicopters in hot, harsh conditions.

The Sahel is the semi-arid region south of the Sahara Desert that runs the width of Africa, from Senegal in the west to Sudan in the east. The French defense ministry refers to the area of operations as the Sahel-Sahara Strip.


The air corps also has been honed and tested by ongoing allied operations out of Djibouti as part of the Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa. That multinational task force has been operating in eastern Africa since shortly after Sept. 11, 2001’s terrorist attacks in the U.S. in what some call the forgotten war against terrorism.

Since the Jan. 7, 2015, terrorist attacks on the Paris office of satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo that killed 12, the air corps has been called upon to support intensified domestic security missions under Operation Sentinelle. That operation was expanded after multiple terrorist attacks in Paris on Nov. 13 and 14 that killed 130 and injured nearly 370.

“We are at a key moment,” said the air corps’ commander, Maj. Gen. Olivier Gourlez de la Motte.

He likened the moment to France’s 1955 introduction of the armed helicopter in operations against guerillas in the Algerian War, which started in 1954 and ended in 1962. The helicopter proved itself a useful combat instrument then.

In Africa today he said, “we see that this instrument has become indispensable.”

The corps he commands is known by the French acronym ALAT (for Aviation Légère de l’Armée de Terre, or light aviation of the land army). ALAT’s 5,000 personnel—including roughly 1,000 pilots and 2,200 aircraft mechanics—fly and support more than 305 helicopters (largely Airbus aircraft). ALAT has a budget of roughly 1.2 billion euros (about $1.36 billion).

Here is a summary of some recent activities.

Operation Sanagris

France launched this military operation in the Central African Republic at the end of 2013 after the republic was threatened by sectarian fighting that included the overthrow of the elected government.

Fearing genocide in the country, the United Nations in December 2013 authorized the International Support Mission to the Central African Republic (led by the African Union) to deploy for a year to restore order and ease religious tensions. French forces supported that operation.

While at times France has looked to draw down its forces in the nation, Sanagris continues today, with ALAT and other French forces now supporting the U.N. Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic.

Operation Barkhane

This anti-insurgent operation in the Sahel was launched in August 2014 and includes 3,000 French troops headquartered in Chad’s capital of N’Djamena. France is conducting the operation with five former colonies: Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger.

The force there is intended to be a permanent one charged, according to France’s defense ministry, with two objectives: assisting the armed forces of those five nations in fighting terrorist networks in the Sahel-Sahara region and contributing to the prevention of terrorist safe havens in the region.

Horn of Africa

Upgraded AS532 Cougars flown by the French army air corps provide larger operating range, new avionics and improved all-weather capabilities. Photo courtesy of Airbus Helicopters

The Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa’s areas of operation include Sudan, Somalia, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Seychelles and Kenya. It also has operations in Mauritius, Comoros, Liberia, Rwanda, Uganda and Tanzania.

The 2,000-strong multinational force is charged, according to the task force, with serving as a “critical power-projection platform” and working with “partner nations, coalition forces, interagency and intergovernmental organizations” to “prevent violent extremist organizations from threatening” allied nations, their citizens and interests.

The air corps today has about 30 helicopters and 250 personnel deployed outside France, according to its commander. That is reduced from peak levels.

At one time, for example, ALAT had 40 helicopters deployed in Mali alone.

The deployed forces include Tiger attack helicopters, SA330 Pumas, AS532 Cougars, SA341/2 Gazelles and EC725 Caracals and NHIndustries NH90 Caimans in Mali, Niger and Chad supporting Operation Barkhane. Others are deployed in the Central African Republic with Operation Sangaris and supporting their special forces in Djibouti.

Deployed forces now are organized as quick reaction forces. In the Central African Republic, for instance, ALAT has several helicopters—utility Pumas, armed Gazelles and Tigers—to support one company of infantry and one of armor.

ALAT also has 28 to 30 helicopters ready to fly in France, with 20 on alert to support Operation Sentinelle and other joint-operations and domestic-security requirements.

Understandably, the deployments have taken their toll.

According to de la Motte, more than 20 of ALAT’s 50-plus Tigers have been deployed 44 times on combat missions lasting for more than two months since 2009—to Afghanistan, Libya and Somalia, as well as Mali and the Central African Republic. One Tiger that returned from Mali reportedly had 19 bullet holes in it, and the aircraft has seen challenges in returning to service.

Setting aside gunfire, the Sahel itself attacks helicopters with high temperatures and abrasive sand. This drives a focus toward preventive maintenance. In addition, prior to departing France, ALAT’s helicopters are fitted with countermeasures such as sand filters, protective windshield film, special paint on rotor blade leading edges and reinforced seals on hinged cowlings.

ALAT Reviews Domestic Medevacs

The November 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris that killed 130 and injured hundreds, combined with an ongoing major reorganization of the Army, has its air corps re-examining support of medical evacuations in domestic emergencies.

Health specialists with France’s armed forces are skilled at triage. But a large-scale emergency can overwhelm close-in hospitals.

ALAT leaders are reviewing how its helicopters might transport large numbers of patients to hospitals away from the emergency zone to free up the nearest hospitals to focus care on the most critically injured patients.

One factor they must consider is balancing such medevac missions with the requirement to transport security to and from the emergency zone.

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