As the Marine Corps builds up the Special-Purpose Marine Air Ground Task Force – Crisis Response (MAGTF –CR) under Marine Forces Africa (MARFORAF), there are valuable lessons to be learned from recent French military operations on the African continent. This essay gives some background on France’s historic interventions in Africa and makes recommendations for future changes to the force structure of the SPMAGTF-CR.
Although the popular press in the United States often maligns the French military in general and France’s willingness to involve itself in Coalition military endeavors in particular, in reality, the French are both powerful and active in the realm of military affairs, especially when it comes to Africa.
France is the sixth most powerful nation in the world from a military perspective; in addition to a large and modern conventional force, it maintains a credible nuclear deterrent arsenal. Interestingly, the French military connection to its former colonial possessions in Sub-Saharan Africa does not extend to arm sales; while the French are the world’s fourth largest exporter of military hardware, (Rapport au Parlement, 10) exports to Sub-Saharan Africa account for only 5 percent of their total sales, and France has never made the Top Ten list of African arms suppliers compiled annually by Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI). Historically, Russia and Ukraine have occupied the top spots on this list, but since 2006, China has edged out the former Soviet Republics as the preeminent supplier of military hardware in Sub-Saharan Africa.
Arms sales aside, France has long maintained strong economic, linguistic, cultural, political, and diplomatic ties to Sub-Saharan Africa, and this special relationship, dubbed “la Françafrique” has existed to a greater or lesser extent from the end of the Colonial Era in the 1960s to the present day. The recurrent theme of la Françafrique most relevant to this paper is the French record of military involvement in Africa, which since the end of World War Two has dwarfed that of any other Western power, consisting of 37 major military operations in Francophone Sub-Saharan Africa operations in the last 50 years (Griffin, 3) most of which have been conducted without the involvement of other Western states. France also maintains permanent bases in Mali, Niger, Chad, and Burkina Faso, and has defense agreements with the governments of Cameroon, Central African Republic (CAR), Comoros, Côte d' Ivoire (Ivory Coast), Djibouti, Gabon , Senegal, and Togo. (Livre Blanc, 55)
By contrast, the United States is a relative late-comer to the stage of modern warfare in Africa. Bloodied by Somali insurgents, the U.S. pulled out of Somalia in 1995, and like most of the world was a mere bystander to the genocide in Rwanda. There has been a U.S. presence in Djibouti, Combined Joint Task Force Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA) since 2002, but its focus has largely been on combating militant Islam and piracy in the Horn of Africa. Popular pressure from KONY 2012 campaign resulted in the dispatch of about a hundred advisors from the Special Operations communities, but the elusive warlord remains at large. U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) and its Marine Component, Marine Forces Africa (MARFORAF) were stood up in 2008, but were based in Germany because no suitable home could be found for them on the African continent. In the context of first the “Long War” and then the “Pivot to Asia”, Africa remains, as former AFRICOM Commander General Carter Ham observed in 2012, “not a part of the world that the United States military has focused on very intently.”
But that is likely to change. Africa has become a leading U.S. supplier of strategic natural resources, including oil, gas, and minerals, with Angola and Nigeria being two important suppliers of oil. The rise of non-state actors, including violent extremists and transnational criminal organizations engaged in trafficking drugs, people, and weapons is another reason, and is linked to the third driver of change; an increased emphasis on human security and the “Responsibility to Protect.” (Brown, 6-10) This latter has been described by David E. Brown as:
A post-Cold War paradigm that has reshaped the traditional notion of national security by arguing that a people-centered view of security is necessary for national, regional, and global stability.
Combatant Commanders like General Ham and his successor, General David M. Rodriguez , may be the key to changing this traditional perspective; according to a recent RAND report, in the future, “the process of defining what U.S. overseas presence is needed is left largely to the regional theater commanders in Europe, Africa, the Middle East, Asia, and Central and South America.” This same report then completely ignores Africa in favor of discussing the Middle East and Asia as potential focuses for U.S. military efforts.
For their part, the French Ministry of Defense observes that Europe and Africa remain a lower military priority for the U.S., and suggest that that the European states most directly affected by Africa’s stability, and “disposant des moyens d’en assumer charge” (possessing the means to take charge) should plan to play the greater role in security for the African continent. (Livre Blanc, 29) For their part in this role, the French government plans a quick-reaction force of 1,500 ground troops, including armored vehicles and helicopters, which can deploy within 7 days anywhere within 3,000 kilometers of the French mainland, or of a host-nation base, of which France has several to choose from in Africa. This force would be supported by an air component consisting of 10 fighter/attack aircraft and additional tactical transport and reconnaissance planes. The French military plans to use airstrikes to stall enemy advances in the 7-day window before their ground forces arrive. (Livre Blanc, 91) This force is intended to provide France with the capability to react autonomously to security crisis in Sub-Saharan Francophone Africa, indicating the significance placed on response time to emergent security issues. This construct even includes a naval component; not surprising, considering that three quarters of Francophone African countries border the Atlantic Ocean.
Sound familiar? It should. A “Security Cooperation MAGTF” was envisioned in the 2008 Operational Concept The Long War: Send in the Marines. Renamed the SPMAGTF-SC in MARADMIN 011/11, this notional MAGTF contained an infantry battalion, a Combat Logistics Battalion, and an Air Combat Element (ACE) as shown in Figure 1.
|Figure 1: Notional Security Cooperation MAGTF (The Long War: Send in the Marines)|
What is currently in place, instead, is a SPMAGTF –CR (Crisis Response) comprised of 550 Marines from Third Battalion, Eighth Marines, supported by an ACE consisting of a Medium Tiltrotor Squadron of MV-22s augmented with2 KC-130Js. This force represents an increase of nearly 50 percent over the original SPMAGTF-CR, (which was stood up with a reinforced Reconnaissance company and 6 MV-22s) but it may fall short of what is required.
According to Expeditionary Force 21, Special Purpose MAGTFs:
…will assume a greater role in crisis response and generate greater capacity for forward presence in more locations. Based on GCC requirements, these organizations are tailored appropriately to conduct security cooperation activities with partner nations in order to develop interoperability, facilitate access, build defense and security relationships, gain regional understanding, and position for immediate response to episodic crises.
Further, according to this publication, “for the EUCOM/AFRICOM AORs, the goal is a single seabased MAGTF trained for both aggregated and disaggregated employment.” But is this future vision or the force currently in place correct based on the recent history of military operations in Sub-Saharan Africa? Missions executed not by the U.S. or NATO, but on a unilateral basis by French forces? Answering that question is the goal of this essay.
To answer that question, it is useful to look to the French experience in two recent military operations in Francophone Africa; Opération Serval against Islamic and Taureg separatists in Mali, and Opération Sangaris against militias in the CAR.
The genesis for both operations was similar; in December 2012 and January 2013, Muslim military forces in both CAR and Mali mounted fast-moving campaigns against government forces. CAR petitioned France for support, but their request was rejected; within 4 months, the rebel forces would overrun the capital of Bangui and install their leader as the head of a transitional government.
In Mali, on the other hand, with Islamic and Taureg forces days away from seizing that country’s capital of Bamako, and with the coalition-building efforts of the United Nations and the African Union too slow to react, France intervened unilaterally, using Mirage jets and Gazelle attack helicopters to stop a column of enemy technicals that was moving on Bamako. The rebel offensive stalled, an although the French lost one Gazelle to anti-aircraft fire, sufficient time was bought to allow French units from Chad, Côte d' Ivoire and Senegal to converge on Bamako and form a contingency defensive force. Within 3 weeks, the French had a brigade-sized force engaged in systematically clearing the enemy from the towns of Timbuktu and Gao through a series of ground attacks and airborne assaults. Following that, French airborne and armored units, along with their African Union counterparts began the slow work of clearing the terrorist sanctuaries in the Ifoghas mountain range. (Tramond and Seigneur, 42) This rapid and sizable intervention stabilized Mali; the same cannot be said of neighboring CAR.
At the same time the French were clearing the last of the major Malian cities of Islamic separatists, rebel forces in CAR overran the capital of Bangui, and the “Seleka” militias, officially disbanded after their success against the government forces began a campaign of killing (often by machete), looting and rape in both the cities and the countryside. Christian “anti-balaka” (anti-machete) militias rose up in response to the Seleka, and by December 2013, with hundreds dying in the capital, French President François Hollande authorized a 1200-strong intervention force under the mandate of UN Security Council resolution 2127, and visited them less than a week later, declaring that “Il était temps d’agir.” (“It is time to act.”)
Today, despite the actions of the French and African forces to disarm militia groups and stop the violence, CAR remains in chaos. The Christian anti-balaka militias gained an upper hand after the disarming of the Seleka by international forces, resulting in a mass exodus of Muslims into neighboring countries to avoid the killings. Contrast this with Mali, where the enemy threat has now been functionally suppressed, Chad has withdrawn its troops, and a combined French/German brigade –sized force will take up the mantle of training the Malian army to handle future conflicts.
The French experience in Opérations Serval and Sangaris should lead us to conclude that the probable enemy force will be similar to the forces that we’ve previously encountered in Afghanistan; light infantry with little access to armor, but capable of using “technicals” (light wheeled vehicles) to move quickly and employ anti-aircraft weapons. They are also likely to disappear into the populace or inaccessible hinterlands if pressured. Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) have been less prevalent in these operations than during Coalition operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, but they have been used and French soldiers were killed by these devices.
Terrain can and will vary from desert to mountain to jungle; and the tyranny of distance has the potential to be challenging in Africa, a continent nearly four times the size of the United States. The conflict zones in Mali and CAR have often been well beyond the range of assault support range and combat radius of un-refueled MEU shipboard assets.
The mission will likely begin as a “block, drive back and clear” series of operations, with the final phase running concurrent with providing security and engaging in the civil/military operations necessary in a post-conflict environment.
In these phases, armor and close-air support were vital to French success; armored cars, light tanks, and infantry fighting vehicles were required to win the fight, sometimes after crossing distances of 3,000 kilometers from their port of debarkation to the battlefield. Expeditionary logistics and communications proved a particular challenge, according to Maj. Gen. Olivier Tramond, Director of the French Army Doctrine Center:
The huge dimensions of the Malian theater are well beyond the theoretical area of operations for a single brigade. The broadband global area network and other satellite communications systems proved indispensable but are not in the standard army inventory and cannot be used on the move.
Tactical and strategic airlift has been another issue; prior to Opération Sangaris, France was obliged to solicit strategic and tactical lift from several allied nations, including the United States and other members of NATO. Ultimately, this resulted in British C-17’s and Belgian C-130’s supporting the operation. The current SPMAGTF-CR already has sufficient tactical lift in its complement of KC-130J and MV-22 aircraft, but operational planners must coordinate strategic lift with external agencies. While the U.S. Air Force possesses significant strategic assets and would normally be the “go-to” agency for this type of support, the French experience suggests that obtaining strategic lift from European partners may give such allies an “easy” means of supporting a military operation without committing combat troops themselves, and thereby be a useful tool for coalition-building.
Finally, the response time (and size of the response force) in the case of emerging crises, especially those involving violent extremism or ethnic violence, will play a critical role in determining the outcome of the situation, for better or worse. Situations can go from bad to worse in a matter of days; months of deliberate planning time or movement of forces will not suffice to forestall instability and human tragedy. The timeline of both the conflict in CAR and Mali, along with earlier examples in Rwanda shows that response must come within days of the initial events, not weeks or months.
The notional SPMAGTF described in Expeditionary Force 21 is supposed to “conduct security cooperation activities with partner nations… and position for immediate response to episodic crises.” Based on lessons learned from recent French operations in Africa, our current regional SPMAGTF-CR structure is probably not sufficient to excel in either capacity, lacking in particular the combat airpower required to blunt enemy ground attacks and buy time for U.S. or African ground forces to aggregate and engage.
Recognizing that speed, surprise, security, sustainment, and concentration of effects are the modern military principles (Van Avery) most applicable to crisis response in Africa, the future Marine presence in Africa should look more like the notional SPMAGTF-SC envisioned by General Jones in The Long War, with the addition of the AH-1Z and “Harvest Hawk” KC-130Js needed to execute offensive air operations in accordance with those principles.
To engage in ground combat, we’ll need a light armored presence, and bringing in the required number of vehicles from ship-based inventories may not be feasible, especially as ship-based assets may not be readily available to meet an emergent need, especially if tensions continue to rise around the Black Sea. Engaging with French and African states to obtain the rights to preposition vehicles and stores at existing French bases in Sub-Saharan Africa (possibly in exchange for providing a more robust communication architecture in the region) would be one way to overcome this challenge.
U.S. commanders acknowledge that Africa has so far received short shrift from the American military, and French defense officials don’t believe that is likely to change.
But there are political, military and economic factors that will likely result in a greater future U.S. involvement in African security affairs, and the Marine Corps is positioned to remain the “go-to” force for both security cooperation and crisis response in the region.
In planning for operations across the spectrum in Africa, the SPMAGTF commander will create stability on a daily basis by administering an “ounce of prevention”, using their culturally and linguistically knowledgeable troops to engage in theater security cooperation and build the capacity of African allies. But they will also be ready at a moment’s notice to deliver “a pound of cure” if armed violence breaks out.
Drawing on the lessons of the past, strategic-level military and political leaders of the future will no doubt be aware of how very quickly violence in Africa can spiral out of control, and what a devastating effect that can have on current and future stability, and will therefore be quick to utilize their “Force in Readiness” to forestall genocides, the takeover of weak states by fundamentalist religious groups, and similar tragedies which have played out all too often in recent years upon the African stage.
Napoleon Bonaparte once said “Prenez du temps de délibérer, mais quand le moment pour l'action est arrivé, cessez de penser et entrez.” - “Take the time to deliberate, but when the moment to act arrives, stop thinking and take action .” It’s time for the Marine Corps to do the deliberate planning and preparation required so that next time action in Africa is required, we are prepared to engage to decisively overcome the threat and secure U.S. interests. If we do not, we will likely see the mantle of security guarantor retained by France, and the resulting regional influence and strategic benefits will continue to accrue to them, instead of the U.S.
Maj Edward H. “UTAH” Carpenter is an Aviation Logistician and Foreign Area Officer.
Livre Blanc: Défense et Sécurité Nationale, Ministère de la Défense, 2013
Rapport au Parlement 2013 sur les exportations d’armement de la France, Délégation à l’information et à la communication de la Défense, 2013
Hollande à Bangui: « Il était temps d’agir » pour éviter « un carnage », Libération, December 10, 2013, accessed at : www.liberation.fr/.../2013/.../hollande-ira-en-centrafrique-en-rentrant-d- afrique-du-sud_965393
Maj. Gen. Tramond, Olivier and Lt. Col. Seigneur, Phillipe, Early Lessons from France’s Operation Serval in Mali, ARMY, June 2013, pages 40-43
Brown, David E., AFRICOM at 5 Years: The Maturation of a New U.S. Combatant Command, U.S. Army War College Press, 2013
Griffin, Christopher, French Military Interventions in Africa: French Grand Strategy and Defense Policy since Decolonization, Paper prepared for the International Studies Association 2007 Annual Convention, 2007
The Long War: Send in the Marines, Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory, 2008
LCDR Van Avery, Christopher E. 12 New Principles of Warfare, Armed Forces Journal, July 2007 accessed at: http://www.armedforcesjournal.com/12-new-principles-of-warfare/