Libya and Mali: a French air defence perspective

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The southern Africa air defence community has been given an insight into French air operations in Libya and Mali by a retired air force general with over 3 500 flying hours in his logbook.

Gilles Desclaux told delegates at the SA Joint Air Defence Symposium (SAJADS) yesterday that the French involvement in Libya was a war without troops on the ground, with collateral damage a central issue.
“Popular and political acceptance of the intervention was based on maintaining collateral damages at the lowest possible level. The other major aspect was we had to rely heavily on intelligence to find, track and destroy the right targets. These factors made the operation difficult, especially against an opponent who quickly realised he could rely on this constraint to better target his opponents, remaining unpunished by hiding among the population,” he said.

In France’s intervention in Mali this year, supporting ground troops from the air was the main task of the French Air Force. “In this regard, a robust air strategy was necessary to allow the control of a huge territory without permitting any safe heaven to the terrorist groups,” Desclaux said.

He noted that the massive progress made in command and control and intelligence gathering had made a big difference to air operations in both Mali and Libya.

The Libyan crisis saw a month between the evacuation of French citizens from the north African country to the first cruise missile strike. Desclaux said knowledge of the order of battle of Gaddafi’s forces was critical and was completed in 12 days.
“The Libyan fighters and their course of action were analysed and on the night of March 18, 2011, we knew Libyan aviation was operating from two main sites from which 20 aircraft were targeting the [civilian] population. The threat was assessed from low to moderate depending on the areas of action envisaged.
“On the morning of the 18th the scenario was not yet clearly defined. Our assessment was air superiority over a limited area in Cyrenaica…on the 18th in the afternoon the guidance became clear: ensure air superiority over Benghazi and its region…be prepared to strike the Gaddafi tanks threatening unarmed civilians. That’s what was done. Spotted 50 km south of Benghazi in the late morning, eight tanks were destroyed 10 km south of Benghazi at 17h45. It was just in time!
“The mission of March 19 is emblematic of the strategic importance of air power…precision bombs dropped by the Mirage 2000D and Rafale had a strategic impact in stopping the Gaddafi tanks at the door of Benghazi,” Desclaux said.

He pointed out that such a mission demonstrated the importance of airpower and a competent air defence system. He cited another example of France’s airpower: when a flight of four Rafales, launched in France, landed in Ndjamena after nine hours and 45 minutes of flying having successfully destroyed 20 strategic targets in Mali.

Desclaux said French air defence covers air, land, sea and space and provides surveillance and intervention capabilities. He said effective air defence requires sophisticated equipment, highly trained personnel and good logistics and sustainment.



France is planning to further improve its air defence capability with a further 13 GM400 and six GM200 radars supplied by Thales Raytheon Systems. These will supplement the 88 inter-connected civilian and military radar units currently in place in France, according to Desclaux, former officer in charge of French air defence operations who is now an outside director of Thales Raytheon Systems.