Faces of Courage


From Afghanistan to Libya to Bold Alligator 2012 to … ?
French Forces on Deployment

By Murielle Delaporte and Robbin Laird

February 20, 2012 – Defense debates rarely picture the folks who get into harm’s way to execute strategies and whose actions determine mission success or failure.  The last decade of Afghan engagement and African operations – the latest one being Lybia – have seen young French soldiers put themselves in harm’s way, at times while working with US forces: these folks are too often the unsung heroes, the folks who make it happen. During the ground engagement with the French forces in Bold Alligator 2012, several of these young people were interviewed and their experiences discussed from overseas theaters of operation to being off American shores.  The core capital ship deployed for Bold Alligator – the Mistral – has been on continuous deployment for ten months through Libya to operating off of the Virginia Coast.  From the shores of Tripoli to operating off the Atlantic Coast of America, the French forces provided a major contribution towards  the shaping of a new approach to working with sea bases and maneuver warfare from the sea.

But it is not just about ships, or platforms, or joint planning or joint training.  It is about people.  The battle-hardened decade of Marines were able to continue their work with the French Marine Infantry forces and Foreign Legionnaires, who have their own decades of battle-hardened forces as well.  In this slide show, we provide some of those faces, which reflect these years of joint combat and the strategic and tactical contributions which allies make to American security.

These faces of courage tell the story …


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« This kind of operation goes well beyond a simple disembarking : it is a large-scope military action from the sea to the land and it requires a multitude of technical know-how one has to coordinate in an optimal manner. »

(Capitaine de vaisseau Emmanuel Gué, Captain of the French Amphibious Task Group, on board the Mistral, January 26th, 2012)

Credit photos: SLD, Virginia and North Carolina, January and February 2012 (click on top of pictures for detailed captions)


Photos [0 / homepage] 1 to 7 and 35:  Ground Tactical Group

On February 6th, D-day of Bold Alligator 2012, 300 men of the 6th BLB (6e brigade légère blindée or Light armored brigade)  and some 80 vehicles were brought from sea to shore in a matter of six hours via about twenty sea and six air rotations in accordance with the initial scenario planned on a multilateral level during the previous months (compared to 400 men and 90 vehicles during rehearsal the week before).  Five regiments compose the Brigade known as the “Daguet Division” since the first Gulf war :

–  The  21st Marine Infantry Regiment:  21e régiment d’infanterie de marine (21e RIMa) from Fréjus
– The 2nd Foreign Infantry Regiment: 2e régiment étranger d’infanterie (2e REI) from Nîmes
– The 1st Foreign Cavalry Regiment: 1er régiment étranger de cavalerie (1er REC)  fromOrange (photos 2 and 3)
– The 3rd Marine Artillery Regiment: 3e régiment d’artillerie de marine  (3e RAMa) from Canjuers
– The 1st Foreign Engineer Regiment:  1er régiment étranger de génie  (1er REG) from Nîmes

The 6th BLB has been deployed on various fronts – from Bosnia, Kosovo, Ivory Coast, Afghanistan, Lebanon, the Central African Republic,  the Democratic Republic of Congo, to the Republic of Chad -, but for many of these young soldiers, BA12 is their first amphibious experience of this scale and the first time they got to live on a French Navy ship for such a long period of time (the Mistral left Toulon on January 5th): a common feeling shared with their fellow Marines (see photo 2 taken on board the French landing craft EDAR during the rehearsal and coordination phase the week preceding D-Day).  The last French amphibious operation happened off the coast of Lebanon in 2006 to evacuate French citizens. Part of the 1st Foreign Engineer Regiment, crews of the TRM10000 CLD and EGAME  – Engin du Génie d’AMEnagement du terrain –  are the first to beach after the infiltration forces and the last to leave the shore (just before the latter)  making sure all vehicles are safely landing and going back to the ship once the mission is achieved (photos 5 and 6).


Photos 8 to 13:  LHA and Army Aviation

Helicopters were extensively used during BA12 as a complement to sea rotations and potential substitute in case of inclement weather. Amphibious operations are extremely difficult to plan as so many factors – such a the weather and sea conditions – have to be taken into consideration: several backup plans are more than ever required in such a context. On the Mistral flightdeck, specialized teams operate to get the helos ready to go each time they take off and land : a draining task when the operational tempo picks up as was the case off the coast of Lybia. They are recognizable by the color of their outfit and include:

– yellow for the “yellow dogs” – MOPONVOL  (for “matelots de piste et de pont d’envol” in French ) in charge of maneuvers. Maître Principal Jean-Michel Merer (photo eight) prepares the deck configuration for planned flights: “there are 18 possibilities, while helicopters can also be stored on deck if need be. It was the case during the Lybian operation with non stop night rotations.” In fact the 3rd RHC (3ème Régiment d’Hélicoptères de Combat or Combat helicopter regiment), part of the Army aviation (ALAT for Aviation Légère de l’Armée de Terre “), present during BA12 is specialized in night combat. The very first waves of “D-day” on the French side occured at night.

– white: they are the personnel handling the transfer of equipment and helicopter by elevators linking the flightdeck to the hangars ;

– red: they are the personnel in charge of refueling (two are Navy personnel and four belong to the SEA (“Service des essences des armées” or Military Fuel Service) ;

– brown: they are the technical teams preparing the helicopters (photo 10) ;

– silver: they are the Safety fire teams (photo 9).

During Bold Alligator, the Pumas were used as logistic assets including for an artillery raid exercice (RAID AR) conducted the day after “D-Day” as part of continued bilateral training with the American forces : two Pumas carried two 120mm mortar on site for the Marine artillery troops to unload in specific delays and operate (photo 12).


Photos 14 to 22: Artillery Raid

This artillery raid exercise involved the 3rd RAMA and was conducted on February 7th, 2012 in the context of  bilateral training with the Americans nearby (photo 14). The 300 kilos mortar is already a logistic challenge on its own and can be delivered fully mounted as underslung loads or in several pieces inside a helicopter : this was the method selected for this exercice, two mortars being carried by two pumas in three major 100 kilos pieces. The goal is to assemble the whole mortar in less than five minutesand have it ready to shoot. But this is not the only challenge to overcome: as Adjudant Roux who was recently deployed in Afghanistan, explains (photo 20), “in addition to the position of the enemy, one has to include in one’s calculation weather factors – such as air density, wind speed, atmospheric pressure, humidity, temperature -, but also the local environment in terms of the  relief (the mortar was more useful in the Afghan mountains than other artillery pieces the French use) and the culture: indeed, a major problem in Afghanistan besides collateral damage regarding population, has been the respect of crops. The rules of engagement can also differ among coalition partners, the French preferring to first use lightning mortar ammunition before shooting.” In the case of an exercice on the US soil, another logistic challenge had to do with legal safety issues, whether transporting and stocking French ammunition from the BPC to the US territory or regarding  individual safety protection required by US laws for such shooting to occur on US bases.


Photos 23 and 34: Joint Training

Many other joint exercices have taken place in the course of the days following the actual amphibious operation. Practicing with the ERYX missile was one of them : the missile is handled by two soldiers whose carrying weight can then amount to 100 to 115 kilos. This missile is used in Afghanistan, but the French also use the American Javelin, which is a fire and forget missile.


Photos 24 and 25: C2

Command and control are key in any operation, but especially in this kind of training exercice, as three factors tend to complicate matters :

1. In a French amphibious operation, given the fact that both the Navy and the Army are involved, a Transfer of Authority (TOA) must take place when the ground forces are not subordinated to the Navy Command authority anymore and when in this case the Mistral supports the ground forces in a sea-basing function : the TOA took place on February 6th at 23:00 ;

2. Contrary to a franco-French operation, in Bold Alligator, the French troops passed under US Command authorities : one of the main objective of BA12 is to develop the best channel of communications possible for current and future joint operations ;

3. BA12 relied as well on simulation assets being injected in real life forces : the difficulty is to have the proper interface to conduct such a mission within a coalition.


Photos 26 and 27: SAED

Before any land insertion, ground elements must come ashore ahead of time for reconnaissance purpose. This is the role of the SAED for “Section d’aide à l’engagement débarqué” (here part of the 21st RIMA) or deployed engagement support platoon, whose aptitudes are usually taylored to the type of missions being expected. In the case of Bold Alligator, amphibious, under water mine detection and urban warfare capabilities were required to fit with a scenario involving on D-day insurgents attacks in a urban environment, including hostages taking.


Photos 28 and 29: GRP / SNP

The Beach Reconnaissance Group (GRP for “Groupe de reconnaissance de plage“) and Beach Naval Platoons (SNP for “Section navale de plage“) are the beachmasters: they come on land a few days before any amphibious operation to assess the area, especially the nature of the sand, the gradient of the beach and so on. On D-day, they come right after the Commandos and prepare the landing area. On February 6th, they had to slightly move the beaching areas for some of the landing crafts because  of high tides and rough waters. One of the CTMs in particular was caught  by sand bars, typical challenge of this part of the world, requiring the SNP to go back in the 7 degree celsius water to guide the towing process by another CTM. An amphibious operation is in many ways a race against the clock,  and in this case the window to secure the landing craft was 45 minutes because of the tide. But it can be a truck stuck in the sand, a tank stuck in the water and the whole synchronization of the operation can be called into question, hence the need for quick decision-making on which plan B to activate… or not…


Photos 30 to 32: Navigators and Load Masters

In an amphibious operation, one of the keys to success is to reduce the transit time on water as well as the time necessary to load and unload people and equipment : these are all periods of high vulnerability for the troops, hence the major role of all those involved in such tasks. The navigator of the CTM was photographed after an especially rough early morning,  going back to the Mistral to participate once more to the twenty something rotations which were necessary to achieve the goals set for D-Day (photo 29). The  navigator of the EDAR had a specific challenge during BA12, as it was the first time the latter was used outside the French waters: the challenges included specific conditions of the Eastern shore (undercurrent), as well as maneuvering it forward and backward into various  ships’ well decks , in this case the BPC and the USS San Antonio (photo 30). The BPC load master (photo 31) is in charge of organizing all the maneuvers to make sure  that the proper order of landing is respected and that the load is balanced out on the various crafts: in the case of the EDAR, it was a new adventure as well, as it was its first deployment and all had to be mastered in a rather short period of time. Trying new equipment in operation is actually a French common practice, which may look risky, but  allows rapid feedback and improvements if need be. In the case of Bold Alligator 2012 and the new French L-CAT, it looks like the bet paid off, since the goals set up were achieved with the normal hurdles intrinsec to this kind of complex operations…


Photo 33: Medical support

Last but not least, medical teams on the ground and on the ship are there to provide real medical assistance during the exercise, and/or play medevac scenarios if so desired by the planners.  As was explained by the two soldiers photographed (photo 330, “the French and American approach to forward medical support differ, as the Marines will tend to stabilize a wounded patient in order to evacuate him as fast as possible to a hospital (the “Golden minute” approach), whereby the French team will try to give the maximum care directly on site : this means that the latter always includes a medical doctor or a certified nurse allowed to perform certain acts.