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French Harfangs deployed to Mali alongside dozens of other aircraft

altSince January, a detachment of Harfang unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) has been engaged in Operation Serval, France’s intervention in Mali, where they joined dozens of French air assets, from maritime patrol aircraft to tankers.

Last week the French Ministry of Defence (MoD) said that the Harfangs carried out their first operational missions over Mali on January 18. The aircraft are flown by Squadron 1/33 ‘Belfort’ from neighbouring Niger, with two being based in Niamey. It was under the eye of the Harfang that the cities of Douentza and Gao were taken over from Islamist militants. They were also overhead when French paratroops landed in Timbuktu.

The EADS Harfang (based on the IAI Heron) medium altitude long endurance (MALE) UAV has an endurance of over 20 hours – one flew for 26 hours between January 25 and 26. After Afghanistan and Libya, the Sahel desert is the third theatre to which the unarmed Harfang has been deployed.

The French MoD said the aircraft cooperate with Air Force and Navy aircraft operating over Malian territory. France has a wide variety of air assets operating in support of Operation Serval. From its base in Ndjamena, Chad, it has six Rafale and three Mirage 2000D fighters, five C-135FRs tankers, one A310, one C-130 Hercules, three C-160 Transal and one CN235 transport aircraft.

Based in Mali’s capital Bamako are two Mirage F1CR and three Mirage 2000D fighters and eight Gazelle, four Super Puma and three Tiger helicopters. Five French Navy Atlantique II maritime patrol aircraft are based in Dakar, Senegal. France has also charted aircraft, including An-124, An-225 and Il-76 transports.

The French Ministry of Defence on February 4 said that since January 31, French aircraft had flown more than 135 missions over Mali, including 30 reconnaissance flights, and destroyed 25 targets from logistics depots to training centres. Fighter aircraft and attack helicopters were used for these strikes.

Apart from French air assets, a large number of foreign aircraft have been contributed to the intervention force. Nigeria is the only other country to have committed combat aircraft, deploying two Alpha Jets (NAF 455 and NAF 452) to neighbouring Niger on January 18, followed by two Mi-35 attack helicopters. Nigerian Air Force C-130s are being used to airlift equipment and soldiers to Mali as part of the ECOWAS (Economic Community of West African States) contingent (Nigeria has pledged 900 troops out of 3 300 mandated to be sent).

The United States has been supporting French operations with five C-17 Globemaster III strategic transports, three KC-135 tankers and unarmed RQ-1 and RQ-4 unmanned aerial vehicles. The US may also be flying armed MQ-1 Predators over Mali.

The US Air Force (USAF) said that between January 21, when the US airlift effort began, and February 3, its C-17s had flown 30 flights transporting 610 personnel and 1 675 000 lb (760 tons) of equipment and supplies. Since aerial refuelling began on January 27, the USAF flew nine missions and offloaded 360 000 lb (163 000 kg) of fuel to French aircraft.

Canada has contributed a C-17 Globemaster III transport, which arrived in Mali on January 17 carrying French military hardware. In Europe, Belgium has offered two C-130 Hercules and two A109 medevac helicopters as well as 75 soldiers.

The Netherlands pledged to provide transport aircraft and on February 7 dispatched a KDC-10 from Eindhoven air base to pick up supplies in France before delivering them to Ndjamena, which is the French logistics hub for Operation Serval.

Germany has sent two C-160 Transal aircraft to support ECOWAS. On February 8 the Bundeswehr announced that the Luftwaffe had flown 48 C-160D flights that transported 337 personnel and 92 tons of materiel in support of the International Support Mission in Mali (AFISMA).

The Italian Air force is sending two C-130J Super Hercules and a KC-767A tanker, which will refuel French combat aircraft. A Danish C-130J-30 Super Hercules departed for Mali on January 15 while a Spanish C-130 left for Bamako on February 1, transporting men and materiel to Mali.

Elsewhere, Sweden has given France use of its share of the NATO Strategic Airlift Capability, dispatching a C-17 aircraft to France, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has offered two of its C-17s to assist France transporting men and materiel to Mali.

The Royal Air Force has contributed three aircraft, starting with a C-17 that flew into Bamako on January 14, delivering equipment for the French Army. A second RAF C-17 left Paris for Mali on January 15. The two airlifters are providing non-combat logistics support. The UK last month extended its commitment to Mali by committing one of its C-17s to Operational Serval by three months.

On January 25 a Royal Air Force Sentinel surveillance aircraft deployed to Dakar, Senegal, from RAF Waddington. Around 20 British personnel are deployed in Mali’s capital Bamako in support of French forces.

France commenced military operations in Mali on January 11, with the goal of removing Islamist militants from the country. According to the French MoD, there are currently 4 000 French soldiers in Mali. Alongside them are nearly 3 800 African soldiers and some 2 000 AFISMA soldiers belonging to Togo (640), Burkina Faso (500), Nigeria (240), Niger (500), Benin (90) and Senegal (50). More troops are expected in the coming weeks.
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