A French Gazelle helicopter flies over the desert during operations in northern Mali. Attacks on light French helicopters in Mali underscored the need for heavier transport. (Philippe Desmazes / AFP)
PARIS — France looks unlikely to boost the special operations forces by 1,000 personnel, and the administration should replace their worn out equipment as well as add to the inventory, according to a French Senate report.
Spec ops forces need that boost in numbers, since the units have been over-extended and the kit is overused, a defense specialist said.
Sens. Daniel Reiner, Jacques Gautier and Gérard Larcher delivered the report on the special ops forces to the Senate on May 13.
The 2013 defense and security white paper called for adding 1,000 to the 3,000-strongforce.
The government is unlikely to hit that target, but “it is not necessary to reach that,” Reiner said. It is more likely the special ops forces will increase by 700 drawn from the Army, Air Force and Navy, he said. The report recommends close cooperation with the action unit of the Direction Générale de Sécurité Exterieure (DGSE), the foreign intelligence agency, to offset the shortfall, he said.
The special ops forces have been about 100 short of their staffing target over the past five to six years, said a defense specialist who declined to be identified.
As the personnel numbers are expected to rise, the Senate report calls for more equipment, particularly in air mobility assets such as fixed-wing aircraft, helicopters and drones, Reiner said.
The report also calls for cooperation with the special ops forces of the US and European and NATO allies, including Britain, Germany, Italy and the Netherlands.
The forces should be deployed in a strategic role of force projection while conventional troops provide the tactical function of “boots on the ground,” namely, protecting the people over a long period and deterring a collapse of security, said Vincent Desportes, a retired Army general and affiliate professor at Sciences Po, an elite university that specializes in international relations.
“Special forces can deliver a leverage effect, with a relatively small number being used to deliver a large result,” Desportes said.
But there is concern the French administration tends to blur the lines between the strategic and tactical roles and has assigned missions for special operations units that conventional troops would be better placed to meet, he said.
The Serval campaign in Mali is a case study. France ordered special ops forces to stop an advance on Bamako by insurgents from the north. They succeeded and were then ordered to drive back the fighters rather than leaving that job to the French Army, Desportes said. That effectively relegated the conventional troops to a secondary role, affecting morale.
Over-deployment is exhausting the special operators and wearing down their gear, he said. There is a need to renew and add equipment such as a larger transport helicopter with inflight refueling, and an attack helicopter, he said. The Boeing CH-47 Chinook would meet that need. The existing Caracal is deemed too small.
The Mali campaign highlighted the danger facing the present light attack helicopter fleet. The pilot of a Gazelle died after being hit by a single small-arms round in the opening of the January 2013 Serval mission. Small-arms fire in the same action forced a second Gazelle to land while a third back-up helicopter rescued the crew and destroyed the downed unit.
France is expected to maintain a long-term presence in sub-Sahara Africa and the special ops forces will likely face more missions, Desportes said.
Daily Le Parisian reported May 10 that France sent a DGSE team to Nigeria to help recover more than 200 schoolgirls seized by the Boko Haram Islamist group. ■