The British Army is likely to deploy a force to Mali soon to support operations on the ground in this troubled nation.
With reports suggesting a risk of casualties in what is the deadliest UN peacekeeping mission on earth, why is the British Army getting involved in this operation and what does it gain from it?
Mali is not a traditional area for British forces to operate. A former French colony in the region of Africa known as the ‘Sahel’, it is poverty stricken, remote and an at times barely functional nation state.
In the decades since independence from France, it was mostly a client state, supported by the French government, but maintaining a very low profile on the international stage.
The region known as the Sahel includes of some of the poorest countries in the world, including Mali, Chad, Mauritania and Niger, but they have between them significant security challenges.
The region is extremely poor with high unemployment, leading to migration challenges and displacement of people. There are huge challenges with climate change, where extensive droughts are leading to famine and starvation. There is a rise of clashes between groups competing for resources and water for crops, particularly in the north of the country near the Sahara desert.
This climate change and humanitarian problem is underpinned by a near total lack of functioning government, with regular coups and no effective system of control or law and order. With corruption rife and extreme poverty a way of life, there is little sense that Mali is a functioning nation state.
Amidst this chaos there has been a growing Islamist terrorist threat, led by Al Qaeda affiliated groups. This threat which has morphed into a low level insurgency has caused significant security problems, and only exacerbated other problems in the country.
The risk for the West is that if the local government fails, and the remaining security forces and systems of governance collapse, then Mali will effectively cease to function as a nation. In these circumstances there could be a huge vacuum emerging where terrorist groups could flourish, providing a base of operations for those who could train to carry out attacks on other areas, or operate with impunity.
The risk to regional security of Mali failing is enormous, and the impact could be felt back here in the UK, particularly if there is a climate disaster or mass population migration. While it may be a remote and almost unknown location, the security situation in Mali concerns all of us.
The roots of the current operation date back to 2012 when a military backed coup overthrew the then government. In the ensuing chaos, a coalition of Tuareg rebels and AQ affiliated terrorists managed to defeat security forces and expel them from the north of the country.
This created a power vacuum, with Malian security forces lacking the capability or training to restore the rule of law, the country was essentially broken up. When it appeared in early 2013 that the rebel forces were on the verge of heading south and potentially capturing the capital, the French government staged a military intervention.
This effort, known as ‘Operation Serval’ military defeated the groups and pushed them back, but did not solve the underlying conflict. Instead an insurgency erupted against the new government, posing a continued threat to its stability. Following international efforts, some reconciliation and peace talks occurred with some groups, leading a peace deal and the election of a new government in 2015.
To help resolve the matter, the United Nations agreed to deploy a peacekeeping force in 2013 to help improve the security situation and stabilise the country. The aim was to provide troops who could help maintain security and stability against the remaining Islamist threat, while allowing time for Malian forces to be trained up to shoulder the responsibility themselves.
By the end of 2019, even though the peace deal had been signed, tensions remained high in the country and attacks against civilians by Al Qaeda affiliated terrorists continued, with hundreds of civilians being killed. Meanwhile, there continued to be low level fighting between various tribal and ethnic groups across the country in a competition for resources, particularly given the state of climate change linked environmental disaster unfolding that was reducing resources like water and food.
In 2020, the situation remains extremely volatile and complicated. The UN has estimated that well over four million people (some 25% of the population) need external food assistance to avoid starvation. There are hundreds of thousands of internal refugees displaced by conflict, and tensions remain high across the country. Meanwhile, an Army backed coup in August has overthrown the democratically elected President and replaced it with a military-led council that will seek to restore democratic rule in due course.
It is into this extremely complex and complicated environment that British forces will be deploying, but who is going and what will they be doing?
The first British units in Mali were not from the British Army, but instead the Royal Air Force. In 2013, RAF C17 transport aircraft were used to provide essential logistical support the French Armed Forces carrying out Operational Serval. For several years now the RAF has been sending strategic airlift into the country to provide support to international forces based there.
A detachment of Chinook helicopters, with ground support has also been based in Mali for several years supporting French forces. Initially known as OP Newcombe, this deployment from 1310 Flight, comprised three Chinook transport aircraft plus ground staff, and has provided critical support to international forces in the region.
To date, over 2,000 hours of flying has occurred, carrying over 1,000 tonnes of freight and 12,000 passengers around the country. This support makes a major difference in a remote nation with very poor road infrastructure, as it can move troops around quickly to respond to operational threats. The heavy lift capability of the Chinook also means that essential supplies can be sent far more quickly than via land convoys.
Although the RAF were first on the scene, the British Army was not far behind. In 2012, troops were deployed into the Sahel to provide training and mentoring to UN forces in the region. For many years now, UK forces have played a very low key training role, helping to provide capacity building to the security forces.
In 2019, though plans emerged to change the nature of the UK commitment and also deploy troops in a more assertive way. This new deployment will involve troops from the Light Dragoons and the Royal Anglian Regiment, with some 250 personnel deploying out to provide a ground reconnaissance capability.
These troops will be deploying to provide an ability to enter areas that have been less frequently visited by UN troops, and provide up to date information and intelligence on what is going on.
This is in many ways a mission purpose built for recce troops, who will have the opportunity to range far and wide across the country, gaining practical intelligence and tracking potentially hostile forces.
The risk is not insignificant though, and troops will be deploying into what is arguably the most potentially risky operation for British Army personnel since the height of operations in Helmand. The limited number of roads means that the IED threat is high, as insurgents will find it much easier to identify locations to put devices in, or to launch ambushes from.
The benefits though, even if this is a high-risk operation, are considerable. For the UN, the ability to draw on an experienced UK force, used to operating in difficult conditions and trained to fight hard, will be invaluable in, if necessary, taking the fight to the insurgents. It also provides an extra critical level of resilience in helping get more trained troops to support the Malian Government while their security forces rebuild and develop, buying space and time for peace negotiations and moving to a more settled state to happen.
Finally, from a bilateral perspective, UK support to what is, at heart, a mission dominated by the French Armed Forces will be warmly welcomed. Since the signing of the Lancaster House treaty in 2010, the UK and France have tried to increase their military interoperability and seek opportunities to work more closely together.
By deploying to Mali, the UK is taking a significant step towards showing its support for the Treaty, and in showing its support for international security operations around the world. By working so closely with the French, this deployment is a good chance to help deepen this relationship. Particularly in the aftermath of Brexit, this is a powerful way to show continued UK commitment to the Treaty.
There are significant security benefits to the UK from deploying to Mali and trying to improve the security situation there. The military presence will help reduce the likelihood of an area of ungoverned space emerging that could be exploited by terrorists and insurgents.
By improving the security and stability of the country, it also makes it easier to reduce the population displacement, reducing the number of refugees and migrants fleeing to seek a better life elsewhere. More stability means more jobs, more economic prosperity and an improved quality of life overall. This is a long-term goal, but if it can be delivered then the deployment will without doubt have been worth it.
For the British Army, this deployment also raises significant questions about its future operating structure and capability. The Light Dragoons will be deploying light recce vehicles, like the Jackal, able to operate in challenging desert conditions. Deployments like this involving small numbers of troops equipped with relatively light equipment, the ability to move at speed and not be reliant on a lengthy operational supply chain is a good test of the Army’s move towards Strike Brigades.
This is a good test of how effective this sort of deployment is and whether a small group can have a major effect in a big country, or if the alternative is to focus on the so-called ‘heavy army’ of Challenger 2 tanks and Warrior Infantry Fighting Vehicles.
The British Army has been trying to focus on globally deployable units, particularly since the 2010 and 2015 Defence Reviews, and has restructured to deliver this. More recently there has been debate in the ongoing defence review (and UK media) about whether there is even a place for tanks anymore in the Army’s plans, or if it is time to scrap them and focus on lighter, more deployable forces.
The deployment to Mali will be an excellent test of how the lighter Army units fare – will the presence of a Light Dragoons Battle Group in country, supported by RAF Chinooks and allied airpower be enough to deliver missions success?
Alternatively, will it signal where further changes may be needed to help ensure sufficient firepower is available to handle particularly difficult missions?
The experience during this deployment will almost certainly play a major part in informing how the British Army will structure itself and look to equip itself in future. For planners, they’ll need to decide if what matters more is a flexible fast-moving force, or one that is slower to deploy but has bigger firepower – for instance one built around tanks and heavy artillery.
This in turn will play a big part in working out how the UK will want to support future international operations. In an age of IEDs, complex insurgencies and very complicated operations, what is the right force mixture to support this, and does this mean that the UK needs to change or amend its approach?
Understanding this also matters because it will help inform whether the UK wants to take a more hands on approach to peacekeeping operations, or if it wants to focus more heavily on support and training.
There will be a lot of lessons identified from the Mali deployment, chief among them will be those focusing on force structures, the ability to work with international forces and striking the right balance between having a training force and a force able to engage in potentially extremely dangerous operational work.
The wider lessons likely to be identified will probably be on those around how easy it is to work with the French Armed Forces on operations, and what does this mean for future operations elsewhere in the world? Will Mali show that both nations are able to work effectively together?
Although they have been allies for many years, it is actually relatively unusual to see British and French troops deployed together in this way, working so closely together. The deployment will almost certainly spot challenges and issues and give an idea of what needs to be done to improve this.
Finally, the operation will be a useful chance to test how effective the UK’s strategy is for working in Africa. A lot of political capital has been invested in opening new Embassies in Africa, while more aid money and wider support is being thrown at the continent to help improve stability and security.
But this is the first time that UK forces have deployed into a potentially very hostile environment in Africa since the Sierra Leone operations in 2000 saw the Parachute Regiment and SAS deployed to rescue British hostages. While there have been deployments in the intervening years, these have generally been far more benign (for example peacekeeping support in South Sudan).
Whether the political will is going to exist to commit the UK to a long term and potentially very challenging operation in Mali is not clear. It is one thing to provide support, like helicopters or trainers, but a long-term commitment to troops on the ground engaged in missions that could lead to combat is very different.
For the UK the deployment to Mali represents a significant stepping up of British commitment in the Sahel, and a sign of its ongoing commitment to regional security. Whether this new strategy succeeds or not remains to be seen, but it is clear that the British Armed Forces will play a central role in it.
This article is the latest contribution in our Lima Charlie columnist section.
This is part of a series featuring unattributed contributions from experts and insiders providing opinion, insight and analysis on today’s Armed Forces, the wider politics of the military and observations on military life.
Under the pseudonym Lima Charlie, our contributors aim to explore the issues facing today’s military and their comment remains unattributed to allow our writers to present their analysis candidly and under one editorial voice.