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A French A400M airdropped 40 tonnes of supplies to troops in the Sahel

The first leg of the operation marked the first A400M mission from mainland France to airdrop supplies in another country

A French Airbus A400M transport aircraft airdropped almost 40 tonnes of supplies to troops operating in the troubled Sahel region of sub-Saharan Africa, the Armed Forces Ministry said last week.

On March 1, “an A400M left France to make an air delivery before landing at Niamey air base” in Niger, the ministry said in a release. “A second delivery was made the next day, before the A400M returned directly to France.”

The two airdrops delivered “nearly 40 tonnes of food, water, fuel and ammunition,” and the first leg of the operation marked the first A400M mission from mainland France to airdrop supplies in another country.

La Depeche reported the aircraft was based in Toulouse in southern France, and the ministry said the mission resupplied Operation Barkhane’s Desert Battle Group (GTD) “Altor.”

Comprised primarily of soldiers from the 2nd Foreign Parachute Regiment, GTD Altor deployed from Ivory Coast to the Niger-Mali-Burkina Faso tri-border area on January 14, and has been operating alongside the Armed Forces of Niger (FAN). The long-term action is aimed at isolating terrorist armed groups, degrading their logistics and destroying their command networks, according to the ministry.

GTD Altor has been on the ground in a “continuous presence” outside French bases for more than a month. Joint actions have “neutralized several terrorists, and seized numerous resources” including including weapons, ammunition, equipment for manufacturing IEDs, radios, and a drone. The ministry noted three combat actions conducted on February 21 and 23 that “neutralized nearly a dozen armed combatants and destroyed several motorcycles.”

The joint French-Nigerien force uses various modes of action including infiltrations, ambushes, area control, and helicopter operations, and has “made it possible to fully implement the combat partnership strategy of the Barkhane force,” the ministry said.

Although the A400M airdrop resupply mission from France was a first, it is not the first time the aircraft has been used in airborne operations in the Sahel. In September 2018, an A400M Atlas and two Transall C-160 aircraft dropped 120 French paratroops in the Menaka area of Mali, the first time the A400M was used in an operational parachute drop since its adoption by the French Air Force.

Luftwaffe A400M
Luftwaffe (German air force) Airbus A400M large transport aircraft.

The multinational A400M transport aircraft program

The A400M Atlas program was launched in 2003 by pan-European manufacturer Airbus to develop a large turboprop transport aircraft for Belgium, France, Germany, Luxembourg, Spain, Turkey and the United Kingdom. Malaysia joined the program in 2005.

The wings are manufactured in the U.K., the fuselage in Germany, and the aircraft are assembled in Spain.

The A400M Atlas first flew in 2009 and the first production aircraft was delivered to the French Air Force in 2013.

In terms of size, it is positioned between the Lockheed’s C-130 Hercules and Boeing’s C-17 Globemaster – it can carry heavier loads than the C-130 and is able to use small and unprepared landing strips.

It has a maximum range of 4,800 nm (8,900 km) and can carry up to 37 tons.

More than 80 A400M aircraft have been delivered out of a total of 174 ordered.

But the program has been dogged by repeated technical problems. Last year, Airbus renegotiated contract terms with purchasing countries’ governments over cost overruns and delays, and in November, Germany’s Luftwaffe refused delivery of two A400M aircraft over technical faults.

French Tigre helicopter delivered to Operation Barkhane
A French Tigre attack helicopter delivered to Operation Barkhane in Gao, Mali, after transport from Orleans in France by an A400M Atlas, June 6, 2018. Image: État-major des armées

Growing French presence in the Sahel

The French military presence in the Sahel began in 2013 with Operation Serval in Mali, and evolved in August 2014 into Operation Barkhane, which has a mandate for counter-terrorism operations across the region. The Barkhane force focuses activity in insurgent-hit MaliNiger and Burkina Faso, working alongside local troops and other international operations, including the regional G5 Sahel Joint Force (FCG5S), which comprises troops from Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger, Chad and Mauritania, and MINUSMA, the U.N. stabiliization mission in Mali.

In February, Armed Forces Minister Florence Parly said that the number of French troops deployed to the Sahel would increase from 4,500 to 5,100.

France and the G5 Sahel states in January injected new urgency into the counter-terrorism fight, announcing a new Coalition for the Sahel which will see increased coordination between French and local forces. Barkhane and FCG5S forces operating under joint command will focus on the Mali-Burkina Faso-Niger tri-border zone, targeting Islamic State as a priority.

Barkhane is already building command coordination with Sahel Coalition partner forces, setting up dedicated coordination mechanisms in Niger’s capital Niamey and Chad’s capital N’Djamena, where Barkhane is headquartered, while Mali has launched Operation Maliko, a new counter-terrorism operation that will take into account cross-border, regional and international cooperation.

French forces in the Sahel
French forces deployed to Operation Barkhane in the Sahel, January 1. 2018. Image: État-major des armées

France has also been trying to build support for the new special operations Task Force Takuba that will train, advise, assist and accompany local forces in their fight against Islamic State and al-Qaeda affiliates in the region. Takuba will declare initial military capability in the summer and will be fully operational by the autumn.

France hopes that Takuba will comprise around 500 special forces personnel, and the new French deployment will include around 50 special forces personnel who will form the nucleus of Takuba.

So far, Estonia, the Czech Republic, and Sweden have announced plans to contribute to Takuba, and discussions with Finland and Norway are reportedly ongoing, but Germany and the U.S. have declined.

Barkhane already has an international dimension, with European partners contributing troops and equipment. Estonia is to almost double the size of its force protection contingent this yearDenmark has deployed two Merlin helicopters, and three Chinook helicopters from the United Kingdom currently support the operation.

RAF Chinook during Operation Aconit
An RAF Chinook heavy lift helicopter resupplies French and partner troops during the France-led Operation Aconit, which targeted Islamic State militants in Mali and Niger between between June 7 and 19, 2019. Image: État-major des armées

Islamist insurgents in the Sahel

The complex insurgency in the Sahel began in Mali in 2012, when a Tuareg separatist uprising was exploited by al-Qaeda-linked extremists who took key cities in the desert north. Former colonial power France began its Operation Serval military intervention the following year, driving the jihadists from the towns.

But the militant groups morphed into more nimble formations operating in rural areas, and the insurgency gradually spread to central and southern regions of Mali and then into Burkina Faso and Niger.

More than 4,000 people were reported killed in militant attacks in the three countries last year, according to the U.N., and Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has warned that the spiraling violence in the Sahel has spread to coastal states of West Africa.

Many armed groups including Islamic State are active in the Sahel region, but the majority of attacks are attributed to JNIM, which formed in March 2017 from a merger of several smaller groups. JNIM’s leadership has pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri.

Since May 2019, ISIS has attributed insurgent activities in the Sahel area to ISWAP, its West Africa Province affiliate that split from Boko Haram in 2016, rather than to Islamic State in the Greater Sahara. ISWAP’s main area of operations is the Lake Chad area of Nigeria, Niger, Chad and Cameroon.

Macron has said the Sahel Coalition would prioritize the fight against ISIS in the Mali-Burkina Faso-Niger tri-border area because it is the most dangerous.

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