Letter From Paris

Brother, Can You Spare A Drone?

France's campaign in Mali exposes Europe's unpreparedness for 21st-century war.

By From the July-August 2013 issue

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WITH WELL-ARMED radical Islamist insurgents closing in last winter on Mali’s capital, Bamako, French President François Hollande suddenly decided to defend Western civilization. Plunging in the polls as the most unpopular French president since the Fifth Republic was founded in 1958, he just might have had ulterior motives; diverting hostile public opinion at home with a military escapade abroad is a tried and true tactic for floundering chiefs of state. Be that as it may, French troops, mainly Foreign Legion, began deploying to Mali in Operation Serval on January 11. The French applauded his unwonted boldness. He got a brief bump in the polls.

But it quickly became clear that Hollande, for maximum go-it-alone swagger, had ordered the operation without prior consultation with his potential allies. Even less had he assembled an operational coalition. France’s great new friend Germany quickly ruled out sending combat troops, proving that the ballyhooed Franco-German Brigade is useful only for creating a façade of European military cooperation and parading down the Champs-Elysées on Bastille Day. The European Union hemmed and hawed, finally promising a modest training mission for African troops in Mali. Even NATO, eager for new missions to justify its existence in the absence of the Cold War, declined to get involved. 

The European Defense Agency (EDA) in Brussels, created nine years ago ostensibly to further European defense cooperation? Count them out: They’re too busy with visionary projects like using solar power to reduce military energy needs. As retired French Air Force General Étienne Copel, a former assistant chief of staff, scoffs, “The EDA is incapable of even doing a feasibility study. The lack of an operational European defense effort is a catastrophe.” That left Britain to volunteer a couple of military transports and some training personnel, Canada a transport plane, Belgium some helicopters, token efforts that increased incrementally as time went on and danger decreased. 

French troops debarking in Mali desperately needed much more support than that, but France simply did not have enough military transport aircraft to ferry in promised reinforcements, including those from African nations like Chad and Togo. Nor did it have the aerial refueling capacity to allow its Mirage F-1 jets to make planned bombing runs against insurgent convoys and cells. And when it came to that weapon of choice for today’s proliferating asymmetrical wars, the drone, it had virtually nothing. Hollande had his day playing commander in chief, but once the operation was launched he didn’t have the hosses.

France began hitting up Washington for more than verbal support. In a full-court press, Hollande got on the horn to Barack Obama, while Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian called his counterpart at the time, Leon Panetta. Both begged for help with transport and refueling. Washington put them off while the Obama administration debated whether to get involved. For one thing, the American public was suffering from war fatigue following Iraq and Afghanistan. More concretely, U.S. law forbade assistance to any regime that came to power through a coup, as Mali’s had last year.

In late January the U.S. committed to help with aerial refueling and troop transport to “support the international effort in Mali,” thus skirting the notion of direct bilateral aid to the Malian government. U.S. Air Force KC-135 Stratotankers from the 351st Expeditionary Air Refueling Squadron, forward deployed to Morón Air Base in Spain from their home station in England, began refueling French fighter-bombers on January 27. Over the next four months they flew more than 200 missions, providing over 8 million pounds of fuel. Meanwhile, Air Force C-17 cargo planes were moving tons of equipment and supplies, along with thousands of African soldiers, into Mali. 

It was enough to enable the French campaign, eventually ramped up to 4,000 troops, to halt the insurgent advance. The government now claims Operation Serval has killed some 800 al Qaeda-related militants, which it is hoped will enable the Malian government to organize the free elections it has promised for July 28. The next task is more difficult: trying to root militants out of their secret strongholds in the rocky, barren north of the country. And not only there. Analysts note that Islamist fighters are finding safe haven and regrouping in neighboring countries like Niger and, especially, southwest Libya, where they are setting up training camps. To get at them, French forces, or those of any international, UN-backed effort, need the best battlefield aerial reconnaissance they can get—certainly better than the camera-equipped light Cessnas the French army rented from a private firm in Luxembourg as a last resort.

Today’s advanced surveillance drones, like America’s Predator and Reaper UAVs, fly high and loiter long over target areas. But France, like the rest of Europe, is years behind the curve in developing them—despite having the technology and industrial base to produce aviation and space successes like Airbus airliners and the Ariane 5 rocket launcher. Except for some small tactical drones ineffective in that environment, it currently has a sum total of three obsolete surveillance drones with inadequate airborne sensors based on a 20-year-old Israeli model. (By comparison, the U.S. has more than 6,000 drones of all types.) As Defense Minister Le Drian admitted recently, “France completely missed the drone revolution. Our backwardness in that field is considerable and incomprehensible.” 

Considerable, to be sure, but hardly incomprehensible. It is due to several obvious factors, the same elements that for the last 70 years gave Europeans no incentive to create a viable self-defense. Why pay for their own weapons systems and large standing armies when they knew that, if it hit the fan, they could count on Uncle Sugar? Admittedly, Washington implicitly went along with that attitude while preaching weapons systems interoperability, keeping the training wheels on Europe’s military capabilities. With a free ride on defense, European governments could get on with building their postwar welfare states, complete with generous health coverage, endless vacations, and comfortable retirement for all—and investing in programs like Airbus and Ariane that compete directly with American jetliners and satellite launchers.

Then there was the historic, endemic, perverse inability of squabbling Europeans to agree on common weapons specifications and programs, even when it was manifestly in their interest. In the case of drones, that meant Britain and Italy opted for a few American ones off the shelf, while Germany bought some from Israel. This being Europe, attempts at modernization often run afoul of persnickety rules and regulations; last May, Berlin reluctantly gave up on its attempt to buy several American Global Hawk drones, dubbed EuroHawk, because European aviation authorities refused certification for the odd bird. France, meanwhile, could pretend to have its own program by adapting the 1990s Israeli Heron drone and baptizing it Harfang. Even then it faced the obstacle of swaggering air force officers, who long sneered at drones as gadgets: Real pilots, mon vieux, don’t sit in darkened rooms playing the equivalent of video war games.

LASTLY, since the days of Charles de Gaulle, France has been proudly loath to buy any U.S. military hardware that could make her look less than completely independent of Washington. It reminds me of a visit I once made to a new French atomic, ballistic missile submarine some years ago at the big naval base in Brest. Every time we came to an important piece of equipment, the captain showing me around proudly announced, “Made right here in France.” Finally I asked him how he navigated while patrolling the world’s oceans submerged. “Easy,” he said. “We just float an antenna up and get a fix from one of those American GPS satellites.” Oops.

But France’s glaring deficiencies during the Mali operation have made that pose impossible to keep up. Following Hollande’s pleas for help, Obama announced in late February that about 100 U.S. troops would be deployed to nearby Niger, where they would set up a Reaper drone base. Intelligence on Islamist hideouts obtained from their surveillance over the Texas-sized north of Mali would be passed to French officers in the field for mopping up operations. 

That is only a stopgap measure. To follow up, Le Drian met with Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel during a hasty, little-publicized visit to the Pentagon in mid-May to discuss the possible purchase of two Reapers. The discussions seemed to embarrass the defense minister because of the implication that France wasn’t, after all, self-sufficient. “It’s incredible that a country like France, with its technological, aeronautical, and electronic knowhow and companies able to produce its own drones, hasn’t done so,” he said defensively. “But it hasn’t, and we’ve got to have surveillance of our theater of operations. What else could I do? Wait another ten years for somebody to make French drones?” In the meantime, the French military will have to rely on—quelle horreur!—American suppliers. Reports here say France eventually may try to purchase up to seven Reapers from its maker, General Atomics in San Diego.

But the problem with playing catch-up in military hardware is that you’re always far behind the leader. When, and if, France takes delivery of its Reapers, the U.S. will be fielding its latest model: the sleek X-47B, a stealth drone with a range of 2,300 miles, speed of 0.9 mach, and cruising altitude of 40,000 feet. Capable of carrier launch at sea, it’s the vanguard of true robotic combat aircraft. How many generations behind will that leave Europe? Better keep those training wheels on. 

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About the Author

Joseph A. Harriss is The American Spectator's Paris correspondent. His latest book, An American Spectator in Paris, was released this fall.