The recent return of French soldiers from the Malian deployment yields a load of tactical feedback of which commanders, French and foreign, will plough into for future use. But through all the technical considerations, the observers will be asking themselves the same question: How did the French manage to do in months, in Mali, what an entire coalition failed to do in years in Afghanistan and Iraq?
Weapon programs are known to last about 40 or 50 years, from their design to their decommission. And they are almost always replaced with another, which will up the capacity on certain parameters. Planes will go further and faster, carrying more load and equipment than their predecessors, and armour will resist bigger blows and overcome larger obstacle than the previous versions. And, though it is fair to say that tactics don’t amount to numbers and capacities, they are relevant. Place American artillery against German artillery, and the Germans will be able to pound the Americans long before the 18-km-range Paladins can strike back. Not to mention that with a 30-km range, German Panzerhaubitze can cover a much larger area. The French are therefore now relying on their new CAESAR self-propelled artillery system, with a range exceeding 40 kilometres. This proved crucial in their command of the theatre, as the wide spread combined with the high speed (50 to 100 km/h displacement, one minute deployment) meant that insurgents were always within pounding distance. Within minutes of detection, they knew fire could rain down upon them.
To this advantage, the French put their new Infantry Fighting Vehicle, the VBCI, to the test. The eight-wheel armoured vehicle transports 11 soldiers at speeds up to 100 km/h, with additional support from a 25-mm high-speed canon and a co-axial .30 caliber machine gun, within a range of 750 km. The deployment of VBCI proved critical in the success of the mission. Throughout history, commanders have had to choose between fire and movement, which was no longer the case with the ability to quickly deploy heavy fire-power. Of course, some criticized the VBCI for not having tracks, before its success. But a large difficulty of military planning lies in discriminating the common from the exceptional. While it is true that tracked vehicle can perform some monkey tricks, such as turn on a dime, Nexter’s VBCI can outrun a tracked vehicle 99% of the time, and the odds that the turning point of a battle would hinge on an on-the-spot turn are pretty slim. At no point did the deployed French troops suffer lack of mobility in the face of the enemy. Michael Shurkin, in his book “France’s war in Mali”, pushes the Pentagon to consider the “the advisability of reducing protection and fielding lighter vehicles to enhance mobility and reduce sustainment requirements, and in particular the introduction of a vehicle with the weight, protection level, and firepower of the VBCI.” In other words, for one of the first times, the conventional army was more nimble and agile than their insurgent counterparts.
In the end, we still and always will have the same rule of war: defeating not the enemy, but the enemy’s will to fight. The French have used to oldest trick in the world, in using their fearsome artillery to convince the insurgents that nowhere is safe, and constantly catch them off guard by bringing the fight to them before they are ready, with high-speed maneuvering with the VBCI. An interesting point was found in the armed contacts. An insurgent is often lightly armed and nimble. It doesn’t dominate with fire-power but with initiative. The peculiarity of the Malian battlefield is the outstanding armament at the rebels’ disposition. A large stockpile of Libyan weapons and vehicles fell into the insurgent’s hands after Gadhafi’s downfall, giving them unprecedented firepower, as well as unmatched numbers for such irregular forces (an estimated 5- to 10 000-strong force). Though none of their gear is modern, they do drive BTR-60s and pick-ups, sometimes equipped with ZSU anti-aircraft guns, SA7 missiles and SVD Dragunov sniper rifles. All of this amounts to an operational level which greatly exceeds average insurgents with his AK-47 and RPG-7, and a respectable enemy on the battlefield. But the infantry-artillery combination implemented by the French turned out to be perfectly suited to the battlefield. Only very light units (foot soldiers, basically) can dodge out of an artillery barrage, any heavy equipment will be too cumbersome, and most likely be shredded by the shrapnel. As for the remaining melee units, as heavily armed as they may be, they will be no match for the highly mobile 25-mm cannon, and unable to get through the armour.
If fire power and movement are no longer insurgent assets, the only one assailants have left is the IED attack. Artillery was seldom targeted, as it is rather immobile and usually tucked far away from the front line. Infantry fighting vehicles were targeted, but the design of the VBCI resisted a direct hit in Kapisa, and was able to start its following mission, after two hours of minor repairs; IED attacks against infantry vehicles were also noted, but they all failed to neutralize the vehicle or hit the crew. To this day, neither in Afghanistan nor in Mali, not a solider has been killed in the new Infantry Fighting Vehicle.
When studying military strategy, an infinite number of details come into play – aircraft range, position of bases, fuel types, caliber standards, rules of engagement, etc. – each one needing to be taken into account. And each one of these details shifts every time a technological breakthrough occurs. But the larger picture remains rather unchanged: you move fast, and you punch hard. Something the French have known to do since before Austerlitz.
Thomas Baker is an international security consultant. He has worked as a political advisor to UN forces in the Balkans and in Central Africa, and has served as an officer in the Luxembourg armed forces.