PARIS — A top U.S. defense official is pushing back against reports that American forces are not assisting France with its campaign in Mali.
“That is a fight we have a dog in,” Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said during a Jan. 24 taping of “This Week in Defense News.”
“We do support the French. We are doing things,” he said. “We’re not asking for reimbursement for the things that we’re doing.”
Carter said U.S. forces were aiding the French with intelligence and transport. This past weekend, after Carter spoke, the U.S. agreed to provide aerial refueling tankers that would support French operations.
“We are really behind the French,” Carter said. “We’re trying to help them as a number of nations are trying to do. And the French, as is very understandable and welcome, asked first for intelligence, then for transport. Now we’re discussing tanking with them, trying to understand exactly what they need.”
A senior French defense official said the more assets France can draw on, the faster it can prosecute the counterinsurgency campaign in Mali, as time is of the essence.
“What’s key is to resolve this rapidly,” the senior official said.
The need for speed is to avoid French forces getting bogged down for years as they seek to defeat the Islamist Salafist and Tuareg rebels.
Agents believed to be seen as attached to the northwestern Africa al-Qaida AQMI movement have attempted four or five attacks on French territory since 2009, the government source said. The French Embassy in Mauritania has also been targeted, the source said.
France’s three big capability gaps are intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR); inflight refueling and airlift. The territory to cover is vast — Mali is two-and-a-half times the size of France — so the requirements are great, and the clock is ticking.
Last week, a French government source said the lack of a U.S. offer of air tanking was “incomprehensible.” Asked about the tanker request, Carter said, “We’re trying to understanding exactly what they need.”
In other areas, there has been “extremely valuable” cooperation, the French government source said.
More air tankers would deliver a “permanence” in air power, the first official said.
The French Air Force operates four air tankers out of N’djamena in Chad, and one tanker based in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, a second defense official said. The service flies an average of one flight a day of five to 10 hours per sortie to support the 12 fighters deployed: six Mirage 2000D, four Rafales and two Mirage F1 CRs.
A tanker in the air day and night would to allow round-the-clock strikes, raising the tempo and denying the rebels time to rest up under cover of darkness.
The average age of the French C-135FR air tanker fleet is 48 years, and it is assigned to the strategic deterrence fleet.
The French Army now has three Tiger attack helicopters in Mali, part of a total mixed helicopter force of 12 units. The maximum number of Tigers in Afghanistan was five helicopters units.
As part of the ISR effort, the French Air Force is flying two Harfang medium-altitude, long-endurance UAVs, out of its total four units.
The French Navy is flying four to six Atlantique 2 aircraft for ISR and targeting missions, and contributes commandoes to the special operations forces deployed on the ground.
In coalition efforts, a valuable aid would be access to the U.S. secure internet protocol router network, dubbed SIPRnet, a French officer said. That would allow direct communications between, say, a French Navy and U.S. Navy ship.
The British, meanwhile, have been “exemplary” in cooperation and political support, the French government official said. Britain has shown it counts, the source said.
In the wake of the deadly attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya, there has been a large buildup of air assets in the region, a Pentagon official said.
The U.S. contribution to ISR over Mali includes manned and unmanned aircraft, including the U2 spy plane, Global Hawk UAV and EP-3 Aries, the U.S. official said.
The U.S. said Jan. 22 it would send three C-17s to help the French effort.