The Associated Press reported today that France may look to dramatically restructure its military presence in Africa to be better suited to respond to regional contingencies. Since the beginning of 2013, France has flexed its military muscles with interventions in Mali and Central African Republic. Last year, the chief of France’s defense staff, Admiral Edouard Guillaud, also suggested that French forces on the continent should be allowed to more readily pursue terrorists, especially in the Sahel region.
France’s Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said in describing the plan that the number of French forces based in Africa would be unchanged, but that they would be postured differently. France’s force in the Sahel region will number approximately three thousand personnel. Under the new posture, Abidjan, the capital of Cote d’Ivoire, would become the primary entry point and logistics hub for French forces. Chad’s capital N’Djamena would become a hub for French air operations, while the capital of Niger, Niamey, would be used as a primary staging point for unmanned intelligence gathering flights.
These changes seem reasonable in light of the French experience in their recent interventions. Foreign air support and logistical assistance were critical in getting both Operation Serval and Operation Sangaris going. The importance of air power in theater was visible in both of these operations as French forces conducted an airborne assault in Mali in January 2013 and have already deployed a significant air component to Chad in support of operations in CAR. Unmanned surveillance in the Sahel is also critical given the absence of government control in many places, which has in the past been referred to as an “under-governed space.” Establishing a force in Niamey makes good sense as the US also recently established an unmanned surveillance mission there.
However, if France is not intending to increase the size of its overall force on the continent, one must wonder what the end result of the restructuring will be. Though billed as a solo-effort, France’s incursion into Mali would have been impossible without airlift capabilities supplied by the US, the United Kingdom, and the Netherlands, among others. France also lacked the aerial refueling capability for sustained air operations, again relying on the US. The US continues to provide logistical assistance to the French in both Mali and CAR. France’s current force on the continent has clearly been strained, leading them to pull elements out of Kosovo to reinforce their operations in Africa, and the country has continually lobbied for assistance from other European powers. The Dutch recently began deploying to Mali to ease the strain on French forces there and the EU just approved a peacekeeping mission for CAR. Without an increased and permanent commitment or an increase in capability broadly, the revised French may not necessarily help them respond any faster or more efficiently to future contingencies.