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The French Military’s Excursion to Mali: Lessons for the ADF

Soldiers seated inside an aircraft against wall with a vehicle in front of them

In response to the growing geopolitical competition within our near-region, Australia must become more assertive when projecting its strategic interest. This may require an ADF that is capable of suppressing a more aggressive range of threats, and independently capable of creating the environmental conditions for political stability to return. This is a strategic reality not only recognised by the 2020 Defence Update,[i] but also forecasted in the 2019 Future’s Statement by the Chief of Army. An era of ‘Accelerated Warfare’ demands, among other elements, and Army that is prepared for increased volatility, uncertainty, and complexity.

The ADF, however, has not been required to independently launch and sustain an offensive, high-tempo operation in decades. How might a military-led operation which is focussed on restoring stability and support our partners? It would be useful to draw lessons from similar Western middle-powers, who similarly maintain a range of strategic interests which call for the deployment of their military abroad.

Like Australia, France maintains a range of strategic interests abroad, which results in their forces being oriented around the objective of restoring stability and suppressing violence. France is seen as a regional security provider in northern Africa, comprising of countries such as Niger, Chad, and Mali. These are interests borne from a long colonial history, and today represent significant cultural and economic links. The French-led expeditionary operation to Mali therefore has high-relevance to Australia. It represents an opportunity to learn from a fellow Western state on the challenges in conducting long-range expeditionary operations with light, mobile forces, focussed on restoring stability.

Australia has previously responded in the Pacific Island region to non-state armed groups operating within weak institutions. This was true for the Bougainville and the Solomon Islands, and to a lesser extent, the violent civil unrest in Tonga. In January 2013, France experienced a similar-style insurrection in the form of the Tuareg ethnic group in Northern Mali. Calling themselves the MNLA (the Movement for the Liberation of Azawad), the group began to dominate small towns and villages through violence and intimidation tactics, within the sparsely populated region. They also aligned themselves with other Islamic terrorist organisations, including al-Qaeda. Adding to the instability, the Malian government was in no position to quell the violence, suffering from endemic corruption, a fractured military, and broken democratic institutions. The MNLA thus represented a significant threat to not only Mali, but the wider Northern Africa, where France maintains various strategic interests.

A critical element of the operational strategy was a rapid deployment to the theatre. Successful expeditionary operations are typically executed quickly, as it prevents the security challenge from evolving into a much greater issue. Furthermore, it demonstrates the strength and resolve of the intervening forces, diminishing the morale of the insurgency. Despite not having forces in Mali, the French did possess military power close-by. This includes bases in the Ivory Coast and Burkina-Faso. Additionally they had 250 soldiers in Senegal, as well as 950 troops and Mirage 2000D Fighter Jets in Chad. Furthermore, a number of special forces equipped with ISR capabilities and helicopters were positioned in Burkina-Faso, as part of a counterterrorism operation, which enabled the quick gathering of intelligence just prior to deployment. Thus, before general troops could be sent, the French already established a forceful presence by gathering intelligence, utilising its special forces to conduct counterterrorism operations, and deploying destructive air power. Targeted bombings were particularly useful against the insurgent threat, Lt. Col. Spet of the French Air Force describes in his account that this “proved devastating on the poorly motivated mercenaries fighting for the jihadists.” Furthermore, it prevented the MNLA from advancing southward of Gao.

Speed and rapidity would similarly be a central characteristic for France’s land forces within the theatre. The geographic size of Mali is enormous, and an insurgent group as disparate as the MNLA lacked the logistical capacity nor the organisational structure to truly dominate the north where it emerged. Fighting the MNLA then meant moving quickly from town-to-town, preventing the insurgency from developing a foothold, before moving the next area. French planning emphasised speed over protection, and this as reflected by their commitment to using lightly armoured vehicles and travelling up to 5000km, per vehicle, in off-road and difficult terrain.

The final element of the operational strategy worth highlighting was the innate familiarity the French had with the region. French Army units routinely rotate through Africa on four-month “short-duration missions”, and expeditionary brigades would conduct 2-3 year “long-term missions.” Commanders therefore knew the local politics and the terrain, which assisted divide-and-conquer tactics, and enabled them to better utilise regional contingents from Chad and Niger. These regional allies also lent political support for the operation by directly calling for French intervention. Finally, France’s history with Mali enabled a Tuareg-element of the fractured Malian military to lend their support, acting as guides, interpreters and as a source of tactical intelligence.

The French experience in Mali illustrates a possible method for conducting a military-led, stability operations in states where even the most basic of institutions may not be present. Future calls for assistance operations in the region may have conditions which simply don’t allow for a ‘whole-of-government’ approach. In future contingencies which demand a military-led approach, the ADF must have that capability to independently restore civil stability.

Once a decision has been made to engage in operations, the French lesson is evident that making a forceful impact quickly, emphasising deployment to clear the spreading of an insurgency’s influence, and applying regional support to assist the operation, are demonstrably effective at suppressing the spread of a violent insurgency.

The ADF should keep such lessons in mind as it adopts a more forward presence in the region, including the positioning of military assets with strike and intelligence gathering capabilities. Rapid movement across the area of operation, dispelling the expansion of the insurgency before it can assert its authority, is likely to be effective. The vast, disparate island groups would make it particularly challenging for any insurgency to spread its political influence, highlighting the importance of ADF force projection acquisitions. Finally, the ADF should heighten training with its regional allies, emphasising direct military confrontations against violent non-state actors and following the strategic direction of Australia. This will further legitimise an Australian-led military operation in the region, and make their contribution more operationally valuable. By adopting these lessons, the ADF will become a greater instrument in projecting Australia’s strategic interest across the region.


[i] See, for example, “Increased state fragility could also potentially lead to the ADF being called on more often for evacuation, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief missions and potentially more demanding stabilisation operations.”, Department of Defence “2020 Defence Strategic Update”: 16

The views expressed in this article and subsequent comments are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Australian Army, the Department of Defence or the Australian Government.

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