For the Dassault Rafale combat jet, the French intervention in Mali provided another chance to demonstrate its multirole capability. Starting with a 3,400-mile interdiction mission (AI) launched from France on the night of January 13, up to six aircraft subsequently flew daily from their deployed base at N’Djamena, Chad, also performing reconnaissance and close-air-support (CAS) missions. Six of them are still there.
On that first mission, four Rafales took off from St. Dizier airbase with less than 48 hours notice and destroyed 21 pre-planned rebel targets in the middle of the country. They were each carrying three 2,500-liter fuel tanks, plus either six 500 GBU-12 laser-guided bombs plus a Thales Damocles designator pod, or six Sagem AASM Hammer GPS-guided smart weapons. They landed at N’Djamena after nine hours 45 minutes, having been air-refueled six times.
Subsequent missions also relied heavily on air-to-air refueling, as the aircraft remained on station to support French and Mali ground troops as they advanced into rebel-held territory. “Mali is a large country, with lots of sand and one big river. We were flying 800 miles from N’Djamena just to get there, on day and night roundtrips lasting up to nine hours,” said Lt. Col. Francois Tricot, commanding officer of EC02.030, one of two French Air Force Rafale squadrons that were involved. He paid tribute to the crews of U.S. Air Force KC-135s who supplemented the five French C-135FR tankers that refueled the Rafales: “To rendezvous at 02:00 over a dark continent when you are miles from anywhere, is very reassuring, and proves that our NATO interoperability training works!” Nevertheless, he admitted that there were some unplanned diversions into Niamey, Chad, when aircraft lingered over Mali to provide possible close-air-support, and then no tanker was available.
Reconnaissance missions were somewhat shorter at around five hours 30 minutes. They were flown from 25,000 to30,000 feet using the large Thales Reco NG pod. “Nobody can see or hear us from that altitude,” Lt. Col. Tricot noted. The Reco NG pod contains long-range infrared band 2 and visible spectrum sensors that can image from high altitude, as well as an infrared band 3 sensor that is designed for high-speed, low-altitude missions. To save time interpreting the imagery, some preselected frames were datalinked to a ground station in Niamey as the aircraft flew back to N’Djamena. The Rafales also offered “nontraditional” ISR coverage while equipped for AI or CAS missions. “We could see and report people hiding in trenches, and vehicles under cover, using our night-vision goggles and the cockpit display from the targeting pod,” Tricot explained. Most of the CAS missions were flown at night “because that’s when the ground troops preferred to advance,” he added.
“We provided top cover for the paratroop drop at night when Timbuktu was retaken on 26/27 January, with two aircraft on station at any one time,” Lt. Col. Tricot said. “Everyone was surprised at how quickly we launched that operation, and the subsequent one to retake Gao. It was planned and executed in 48 hours,” he continued.
The GPS-guided version of the AASM proved particularly useful when mission planners called for multiple targets to be hit in quick succession, to preserve surprise. “A Rafale can multi-fire the AASM quickly, and we launched 12 from two aircraft within a minute on one mission. They hit targets dispersed over a wide area–munitions storage areas, training camps, and a headquarters,” said Tricot. On that mission in early February, another two Rafales were standing by armed with GBU-12s, so that if any target was not destroyed, it could be re-attacked using the laser-guided weapon.
The new, laser-guided version of the AASM was not yet available to the Rafale squadrons. Although the IR-guided AASM was available, it was not used over Mali. The Rafale can also now carry the longer-range 500 GBU-22 and larger 2,000 GBU-24 laser-guided bombs, but pilots had not yet been qualified on these weapons when the Mali intervention was launched. The dual-mode (GPS plus laser guidance) 500 GBU-49 is also now available on the Rafale.
Lt. Col. Tricot noted that the availability rate of the Rafales was over 90 percent, despite the tough deployed conditions. Pilots flew every second day. Missions against known targets took about two hours to plan, using the Sagem SLPRM system. “But debriefing could take up to five hours,” he noted. Tricot said that “hot” intelligence from the Rafale missions was sent directly to deployed ground units, as well as to the combined air operations center (CAOC) through normal reporting channels. Having the CAOC co-located at N’Djamena was “a great advantage,” he added.
Summing up, the squadron commander said that the missions over Mali “were nothing new for us–we already performed over Libya and Afghanistan.” But, he noted, the efficiency that comes from having multirole aircraft, crews, and technicians cannot currently be matched by most other warplanes. “I like to see a dirty Rafale–it’s a war machine!” he added.
OPERATION SERVAL CONTINUES IN MALI
On January 11 this year, France–in its ongoing military campaign called Operation Serval–quickly responded to Mali’s call for help in preventing the advance of Islamic militants from their northern strongholds toward the populated south of the country and its capital, Bamako. Some 4,000 French soldiers and airmen successfully turned the tide, pushing the rebels back to their mountain strongholds in the north, and then attacking them there with the help of the reviving Mali army. French soldiers are still there, helping retrain the country’s armed forces as part of a European Union mission.
The first airstrikes were performed by French Air Force (FAF) Mirage 2000Ds that were on deployment in Chad. They hit rebel targets at Diabalie and Konna. Six of these aircraft subsequently flew AI and CAS missions from the Mali capital, Bamako, using laser-guided GBU-12 and dual-mode (laser/GPS-guided) GBU-49 bombs. The FAF’s soon-to-be-retired Mirage F1Cs were also in action, a pair of them providing armed photo-reconnaissance missions from N’Djamena.
Gazelle, Puma and Tiger HAP helicopters were airlifted to the theater to provide armed reconnaissance and combat search-and-rescue capability. AMX10 armored fighting vehicles followed. The FAF transport fleet comprised two C-130s, three C160s and six CN235s, supplemented by airlifters from other nations (see below). Five French C-135FR tankers and an E-3F AWACS were also deployed. French government A340 and A310 airliners ferried troops to the region, and Falcon jets evacuated the wounded.
Full-motion video (FMV) coverage of Mali was provided by two EADS Harfang (IAI Heron) MALE UAVs operating from an undisclosed location, and a French Navy ATL2 more usually employed on maritime patrol duties. Satellite imagery was used extensively, notable from the French-sponsored Helios and Pleiades systems.
The entire air operation was run from a command center in Lyon staffed by 30 French officers plus a few more from Belgium, Denmark, Germany and the UK, supplemented by a Combined Air Operations Center (CAOC) in N’Djamena.
NATO ALLIES ASSIST IN OPERATION SERVAL
Although Operation Serval–the ongoing military campaign aimed at ousting Islamic militant in the north of Mali–was a French initiative, NATO allies provided some much-needed additional airlift and ISR capability. And the action would not have been possible without the cooperation of five countries in Francophone Africa, that provided basing rights: Chad, Djibouti, Niger, Ivory Coast and Senegal.
In addition to KC-135 support from the U.S., tankers were also provided by Germany (A310), Italy (KC-767) and Spain (KC-130). The UK Royal Air Force (RAF) sent a Sentinel radar reconnaissance jet that flew from Abidjan, and U.S. Air Force Reaper UAVs also provided some full-motion video coverage.
The RAF and U.S. Air Force also provided C-17s for the airlift of heavy equipment from France to Africa. Two German Air Force C160 Transalls supplemented the French airlift fleet of similar aircraft, as did C-130 Hercules from Belgium, Denmark and Spain. But France also had to charter expensive Il-76, An-124 and An-225 airlifters from commercial companies to meet the airlift requirements. By early March, more than 8,000 tons had been dispatched, on 540 flights.