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Belgium approves NH90 deployment to Mali

An NH90 helicopter.The Belgian government has approved the deployment of two NH90 helicopters to the United Nations peacekeeping mission in Mali (Minusma). The helicopters will arrive there in February 2018.

On 23 November Belgium’s Council of Ministers approved the deployment of the two helicopters and 50 personnel. The aircraft will be used for troop transport and medical evacuation.

Defence Minister Steven Vanderput said the helicopters will be operational in March and be deployed for four months, although this could be extended by another two months, reports Het Laatste Nieuws.

The two NH90s will come from 18 Squadron, 1 Wing, at Beauvechain Air Base. The Belgian Air Force in September/October took part in the Tropical Storm exercise in Gabon in preparation for operating in Mali. Amongst other aircraft, two NH90s took part in the exercise.

Belgium received its final NH90 in March, of eight ordered in June 2007. The country now has four NH90 Caimans in naval configuration, which will from 2018 replace its Sea Kings. Also acquired were four NH90s in tactical transport (TTH) configuration. The latter are operated by 18 Squadron from Beauvechain air base. The first TTH entered service in October 2013 and the last was delivered in November 2014.

The Belgian NH90s will be used to replace four German NH90s currently deployed there. The Bundeswehr also has four Tiger attack helicopters in Mali. One crashed there on 26 July, killing both pilots, but was replaced by another Tiger on 27 October.

In Mali the German NH90s are used to transport and rescue injured people, in addition to escort and surveillance. They were used to move wounded personnel after an attack on peacekeepers last week that killed four soldiers - Minusma is one of the deadliest UN peacekeeping deployments.

HS Jane's Defence Weekly reports that the mission is experiencing issues with its air support. Earlier this month the publication reported that the Bangladesh Utility Aviation Unit and the Ghana Aviation Unit have withdrawn from the mission.

A UN military source told Jane’s that the Bangladeshi unit with three Mi-171Sh helicopters unit left Mali on 10 November after being deployed in September 2016. The source added that Ghana withdrew its complement on 23 October – it had deployed a C295 transport from September 2014 but this was withdrawn from Mali after being damaged in a suicide attack on the Gao airport in November 2016. It was subsequently flown back to Ghana for repair.

Apparently the Ghana Air Force did not want to return to Gao as the location was too dangerous and would have rather placed the aircraft in Bamako, but because of this Ghana’s agreement with the mission was not renewed.

Jane’s reports that Minusma has chartered an ATR 72 which is based at Gao, and also has a C-130 provided by Belgium, Denmark, Norway, Portugal, and Sweden under a 2016 agreement.