The French in Mali: Shaping the Logistics Element of the Operation


2013-04-30 By Robbin Laird and Ed Timperlake

Earlier we provided an initial read of the French operation in Mali based on our discussions with SLD’s Murielle Delaporte. 

We now follow up on that initial piece with a more detailed interview with Delaporte conducted shortly after her return from Mali to France.

A key element of the discussion revolved around the role of the logistics element within operations.  The classic distinction between the rear and the front has been blurred beyond recognition. 

The French were exercising expeditionary logistics of the sort the USMC is very familiar with. 

And within the operation, the capacity to carry kit within the operation was crucial and the sorting out of what needs to be deployed where is correlated with the core question of who can be supported where?

It is almost a tautology for expeditionary operations.  You can go where you can be supported and sustained; you can be supported and sustained where you can go.  This is the heart of expeditionary logistics as opposed to setting up facilities from which you then can support deployed forces.

SLD: Tell us about your experience in being with a convoy moving from the South to the North?

Delaporte:  I was lucky enough to be embedded in a logistics convoy going from Bamako to Gao for three days.  At the beginning of the Serval operation, following the route of this convoy took 4-5 days.  Now at this phase of the operation and given the large number of convoys it had to run, the Logistic Battalion has been able to reduce the time necessary to operate the convoy to three days.

The length of the trip is 1200 kilometers, but speed varies with the terrain and the conditions.

The first day driving North of Bamako is slow trekking as laterite roads do not allow convoy to go beyond 30 kms per hour.  It takes one day to cover 300 kms.  The next day is about the same length and speed, because the roads are in bad shape: most of the convoy has to weave off and on the road to avoid multiple potholes. The third day covers a longer distance and can take, depending on breakdowns and conditions, 15 to up to 20 hours : it is the part of the trip where protection needs to be strengthened as one gets closer to the Gao area.

SLD: Could you describe the convoy?

Delaporte: In this particular case, the convoy included about 50 trucks and vehicles with about 120 personnel.  Earlier in the operation, the logistics units tended to be larger and up in the North have been deployed along with the fighting forces.  This operation has been logistics fed and in many ways logistics led.

Normally, one prepares the ground for the intervention force.  Equipment and supplies are put in place to support the intervention force which comes a bit later.  In this case, the forces came together, which made this operation especially challenging given the lack of existing infrastructure on this theater.

The conditions in Mali are challenging as the support element providing fuel experiences here with a small tornado hitting their area. Credit: MD, Bamako, April 2013

To take the enemy by surprise in the North, the French forces used air strikes and mobile ground forces with core support.  The logistics personnel had to bring support at the speed of the operation.  This meant water, food, ammunition, fuel and so on.

For water alone and as an example of the volumes logisticians had to deal with, 10 liters of water per man a day have been necessary to sustain the fight in areas like Tessalit and Tombouctou, where troops had to carry 50 kgs of equipment with temperature reaching 55 degrees Celsius in difficult terrain: that meant at a minimum sending every single day two C-130s fully loaded with water.

SLD: What was the role of the air element and what were some of the key French air assets involved?

Delaporte:  The air element was critical along with the C2 capabilities and was crucial for the engaged logistics element as well.

Fighters – Rafales, Mirage 2000Ds and Mirage F-1s – were involved, while at the same time Special Forces were moved in hot pursuit with the use of helo forces.  The fighting in the North has been extremely hard and challenging.

Unlike in Afghanistan, the French forces had to operate at speed largely alone and integrate their ground and air elements into the Mali operation.  This was quite different from the Afghan theater, where NATO forces could provide support if need be.

In this case, help from the Allies came mostly as strategic and tactical airlift, as well as air refuellers.

SLD: How was the convoy protected?

Delaporte: For the convoy I was with, the area has been largely secured.  One can see destroyed equipment on the route around Konna where the Djihadist progression was stopped in January, which feels a bit like a demarcation line between the North and the South. The population is very positive all the way through and kids applaud at the convoys.  It is a bit like America in France in 1944, but this time the French flags were the foreign flags being flown by the local population along with Malian flags…

We did encounter a mine along the route, which had to be dealt with, but outside of that, the environment was the biggest challenge.

SLD: Ground intelligence then was a key to providing for convoy security?

Delaporte: It is, but the French have significant information provided by satellites and other means. Notably because of the challenge of dealing with kidnappings and hostages in the area over the past few years, the terrain and insurgent engagements were well known and mapped.  The French also know the area, given their traditional presence in the region and historical ties.

SLD: What about the rules of engagement?

Delaporte: There were clear national rules of engagement from the outset of the operation as opposed to any lack of clarity, which can be sometimes the case in coalition engagements.  This was a key element for mission success.

But the centrality of logistics should be underscored as the biggest challenge and the one of the key to that success, as General de Saint Quentin, commander of Serval, stressed during an interview explaining that the level of troops he could send to the fight was tightly connected to the level of sustainment possible under very harsh conditions.

All throughout this operation, the French forces have experimented with different and innovative ways to transport troops throughout the operational areas.

SLD: What about the challenges of heat and sand to the equipment?

Delaporte:  The heat and sand are significant forces in degrading equipment (and exhausting their users).  They are a constant challenge for the engines in particular, but also ammunition. The biggest issue is sand infiltration, and there is a constant effort to clean the equipment. But another key challenge especially for vehicles is that of vibration given the terrible road conditions.

The French have found that older equipment had a more rugged and more African-tested history than some of the newer equipment which need to be tuned up for such challenging conditions.

SLD: What other challenges are there?

Delaporte: The distance of the operation and the need to embed logistics is a crucial challenge.  In effect, as logisticians currently deployed in Mali describe it, the French are shaping a XXIth Century version of the caravan to deploy kit and support with the forces.  For communications, in addition to regular military means, it is interesting to note that the French Orange mobile network is rather helpful, but elongations and African night conditions are not without creating their own set of issues.

The other challenge at the moment is the two way logistics which is going on, with  the withdrawal of equipment as the convoys return to Bamako or neighboring African countries. The leadership is seeking to shape the right mix of forces for this phase of the operation along with what they will need to be supported.  Indeed, determining the force mix both in terms of combat and support troops is a key task for the next phase.

The conditions are tough however.

Let me give you an example : for several weeks, the ammunition support element had to sleep in ammunition containers at night (which temperature during the day could surpass 60 degrees Celsius) to be protected from the pythons and scorpions in the area where they were operating.

SLD: Finally, what was the role of air support?

Delaporte: Air support has been crucial in the areas of more intense engagement. Forward air controllers or FACs were important members of the ground forces.  And air assets –Air Force (fighters), Army (helos) and Navy (Atlantique 2) – have been drawn upon in the operation.

More generally, and as far as the air component goes, one should also stress that the demands on the old tactical transport aircraft Transalls or the C-160s are very high.

This would be a good time to have the new A400Ms in play.

French Air Force officers all agree that it will be beneficial in the near future to have a plane which could fly straight from France and have the capability to land on the short, tough airfields characteristic of the Mali operation.

In this slideshow some of Delaporte’s photos of the logistics side of the operation are presented.

Photos 1 to 6 : Logistic convoy going from Sevare to Gao, April 14th, 2013
Photo 7 : Morning brief for the Logistic Battallion, Gao, April 15th, 2013
Photo 8 : Cargo waiting to be loaded on a C160, Gao, April 15th, 2013
Photo 9 : A sand tornado passes through the Fuel Support Service installations,
Bamako, April 18th, 2013

Photo 10 : Loading and unloading of an A224 at Bamako’s airfield, April 19th, 2013

[slidepress gallery=’the-french-operation-in-mali-the-logistics-side’]

 Credit Photos: MD, Mali, April 2013

For a companion piece see the following: