A few months ago Defense Secretary Mark Esper announced a broad review to recalibrate the overall US military posture overseas and align spending as best as possible with the National Defense Strategy priorities – forces to compete with Russia and China, breakingdefense.com.
Such a review is supposed to be finished in September after each command has been examined, starting with AFRICOM and SOUTHCOM.
While the review proceeds, a look back to assess the strategic value of the American tactical engagement alongside of its allies in one of AFRICOM’s hottest spots — the Sahel region — reveals a success story many people are not aware of.
“With very few assets, the United States are providing assymetric value not only from a tactical viewpoint, but also in terms of its strategic effect,” says a senior U.S. DoD official of allied operations there.
A Small Footprint
The ratio between a very light footprint and a high value-added target is often lost sight of when considering a theater of operation covering some 4 million square meters. The U.S. contingent deployed mostly in Niger is less than 1,000 men (800 according to most sources), while the type of support provided in support of the French-led Barkhane Operation in the region does not require a large U.S. presence on the African continent.
The Barkhane Operation encompasses five countries where instability due to trafficking and terrorist groups has been contained for several years: Mauritania, Chad, Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso. From the beginning, the French armed forces have been relying on the United States for three capabilities: ISR (intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance), air-to-air refueling and strategic lift. These missions are primarily carried out from a base outside of Africa (such as Moron in Spain for strategic lift and refueling) and even from CONUS (California for drone operations).
According to French Air Force Brig. Gen. Cyril Carcy, currently based in N’Djamena as deputy commander of the Barkhane Operation, the US has reduced help in those three areas by roughly half as other European allies have chipped in with new equipment, and therefore, new tactics.
The coming of the A400M aircraft is a good illustration, with both the French and Spanish Air Forces using them on a regular basis. Recently the A400M was able for the first time to fly from France to the theater to airdrop supplies directly to forces engaged in a combined operation, a key logistics enabler.
Similarly, the planned delivery of a Bloc V MQ-9 Reaper in the coming months will give the French armed forces total autonomy in the use of the General Atomics-built UAVs already based in Niamey.
But US assistance remains a key factor. “Even though our dependency on the United States has diminished, we really need their help, as everything will take us longer. We would be able to do it, but slower, and as you know fighting jihaddists is above all a war of speed and a very short time-lapse is required between intelligence and strike. What takes us a month right now would take us a month-and-a-half without the US help.”
The responsiveness of US defense industries supporting the French equipment — General Atomics for the Reaper and Lockheed Martin for the C130J — is also very much appreciated by the French armed forces, according to the French general. “They are very flexible and listen: they always find solutions and never, ever say; ‘it is not part of the deal!’” he says.
A High Strategic Value
Although very discreet and costing a relatively tiny $60 million, according to various sources, the US support is considered vital by the French leadership and military. A full withdrawal from that part of the world by AFRICOM would send the wrong message, at a time when France has increased the level of deployment to 5,100 troops, while operating in an increasingly integrated way with African and European allies also more and more numerous to participate. As the French chief of staff, Gen. Lecointre, told the French Assembly: “If we had to do without [the Americans], we would do it. But, at a time when France is making a major effort and intends to put pressure on her European partners and allies, the political signal of a US withdrawal would be very negative.”
There are at least three major strategic advantages for the US from the current support arrangements:
The common fight against terrorism: our joint presence not only deters more jihadists to come from the Middle-East to reinforce the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara, but helps downgrade their ability to reach out. As the enemy in this part of the world essentially uses drones mostly for propaganda, Barkhane and the G-5 Sahel governments are very active in countering such media visibility and ability to recruit in order to commit more terrorist acts not only in Africa, but also on the US and European continents as well.
The US armed forces work closely with Barkhane command and have access to the French local expertise which goes back for centuries, and this domain knowledge increasingly includes knowledge regarding Russian and above all Chinese activities in that part of the world. French HUMINT and insight are very complementary to the US SIGINT and IMINT… Before Covid-19 a meeting with Africom would take place once a month to share intelligence. ‘’Barkhane is also the perfect ISR observation platform regarding South Libya’’, notes the deputy commander, and the U.S. involvement can therefore be used as leverage for future contingencies (a look at the Juba rescue operation in South Sudan a few years ago is a case in point).
With the withdrawal from Afghanistan (and a bit from Iraq and Syria), Barkhane provides an opportunity to preserve the knowhow learned from operating together in these theaters of operation, to keep optimizing our interoperability and jointly prepare for the future.
Carcy says the battle against terrorists has recently included a major surge in allied operations which put an end to what became last year regular monthly attacks against African and Barkhane forces.
But it is essential to ensure the threat does not resurge while the planned efforts by Sahel forces to expand their capabilities and responsibilities in the region take place. The sacrifice of U.S and allied soldiers should not be in vain. Carcy and the French military are keen on making sure the death of the U.S. soldiers ambushed outside the Nigerien Tongo Tongo village in 2017 will not go unpunished. The perpetrators are known and are being pursued. The equipment the terrorists stole from US forces at the time – which they consider ‘’totems’’ – are recovered when possible and returned to the United States via ambassadors. It is a matter of honor and loyalty and underscores to the terrorists that they will not prevail.