France completed its Operation 'Tudelle' in Mali's Ifoghas mountains, 500 km north of Gao and close to the Algerian border in early November. The operation saw a shift in both jihadist and French military tactics, while behind the scenes all the indications are that France's military involvement in Mali is set for the long term.
Lasting two weeks through the end of October and beginning of November, the operation was undertaken following a large scale ISR effort that had indicated jihadists had returned to the area they were defeated in a year ago.
Operation 'Tudelle' involved some 400 soldiers and 100 vehicles, and forms part of the wider Operation 'Barkhane', which spans from Chad to Mali and involves 3,000 French personnel.
Unlike the fighting in the area in 2013, jihadist made significant efforts to mask their activities and avoid detection by French forces. The rebels generally dropped their use of satellite phones to communicate, and travelled on motorcycles rather than driving pick-up trucks.
The French military meanwhile made large use of the two Armée de l'Air General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) based in Niamey, Niger. Testament to this, the French air force announced on 7 November that two UAVs had logged their 2,000th flying hours in operation since their first deployment in Niamey late last year.
According to the French military, Operation 'Tudelle' saw 24 jihadists killed, two captured and a large amount of ammunition, weapons and bomb-making components destroyed. France meanwhile suffered its 10th fatality since its Operation 'Serval' was launched in Mali in 2013, when a French special forces operator from the Commando Parachutiste de l'Air n°10 was killed on 29 October.
The French Army Aviation (ALAT) deployed over a dozen helicopters during the operation, including a large component from the 4eme Régiment d'Hélicoptères des Forces Spéciales (Special Force Helicopter Regiment). At least two Airbus AS 665 Tiger and two SA 342M1 Gazelle Viviane attack helicopters were kept on stand-by in Tessalit day and night, ready to support the ground forces. The French found the Gazelle's utility somewhat limited by its smaller range compared to the Tiger. The Gazelle has an endurance of under 2 hours, while the Tiger can fly for three hours on its internal fuel tank alone, while during Operation 'Tudelle' the Tigers always mounted at least one, and sometimes two, external tanks (each tank provides an additional hour's flying time).
During the operation the Gazelles fired at least four HOT missiles, while the Tigers made large use of their 30mm cannon. The Tigers didn't used their 68 mm rockets in the operation due to the close range of the fighting on the ground and the rocky terrain - the flechette darts from the rockets are known to ricochet.
Flying combat sorties mainly at night, the helicopters drew some light weapon fire, but no surface-to-air missile (SAM) firings were reported by French forces.
Following the completion of Operation 'Tudelle', French forces have returned to the Plateforme Opérationnelle Désert (PfOD), a sprawling tent complex erected next to the civilian airport at Gao. The PfOD has undergone, and is continuing to undergo, extensive improvements - with everything indicating that the French are digging in for long term operations in Mali.
The helicopter facility at the PfOD now benefits from large shelters protecting the aircraft from the powerful sun and sandstorms of the region (in mid-2013, three Pumas were knocked down by a storm and were written off). More recently, a 1,800 m x 30 m rough landing strip has been built by French military sappers, parallel to the main runway (2,500 m x 45 m). Helped by French engineers, local Malian companies are working in the PfOD to improve the infrastructure. A sewer system is being built from scratch and a new hangar is being erected for the air freight operations.
In its current form (since 21 September), the Gao based 'Groupement Tactique Desert Ouest' is a 645 man force led by the 35ème Régiment d'Infanterie, which provides 300 soldiers (including one tactical headquarters, a support company and a combat company). This is complemented by a cavalry squadron from the 1er régiment de Chasseurs and an army aviation component, now comprising 10 helicopters: two Gazelle Viviane, two Tigers, two Cougars, two Pumas and two NH90 Caïmans. An ALAT Pilatus PC6 is also based in Gao for light transport duty.
Although the 35ème RI is a VBCI equipped regiment, its turreted 8x8 infantry fighting vehicles were left in France with the unit instead using the lighter VAB 4x4 patrol vehicle, which has a lower (political) profile. Paris is striving for Malian forces and the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) to take the leadership in combat operations, but the necessity and difficulties of Operation 'Tudelle' have proved that that's no easy task.
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