UPDATE: 27 January 2013. The Pentagon has announced plans to provide in-flight refueling support for French operations in Mali. Guess someone explained to the Commander-in-Chief that we have these specialized planes that can transfer fuel to other aircraft in flight, and if we didn't contribute tankers to the French mission, it would grind to a screeching halt.
There's an old joke in the military mobility circles, and it goes something like this: what do you call the transport section of the French Air Force? Air Mobility Command, as in the USAF MAJCOM by the same name.
Sad to say, but the vaunted Armee de l'Air (ALA) lacks the necessary airlift to get troops, equipment and supplies to the war zone in Mali. And, as operations there intensify, Paris put out an urgent plea for assistance, prompting the U.S. to send C-17 transports to ferry its forces into North Africa. As of today (22 January), at least five C-17s have flown sorties into am airfield in Bamako, the capital of Mali, carrying at least 80 French troops and more than 120 tons of supplies.
It's a familiar scenario. AMC airlifters have played a key role in carrying French troops to war zones in its former colonies for decades, and that trend won't change anytime soon. Like most European nations, France has under-funded its military for decades, with some of the deepest cuts in support functions like airlift and in-flight refueling. Why spend billions on transport and tanker fleets when you've got the Americans? No wonder many of the transports on the tarmac at Bamako carried the markings of such French-sounding locales as Charleston, South Carolina and Dover, Delaware.
And to no one's surprise, France has already requested U.S. tankers to supplement its small fleet of C-135R tankers, virtual clones of our own KC-135s. With the tempo of air operations in Mali increasing rapidly, the French need more tankers to refuel fighter aircraft and other aerial platforms that must operate across long distances. Given the geographic constraints of the Mali operation, it's a perfectly legitimate request.
Our response? Until a few days ago, the Obama Administration was insisting that France reimburse us for all airlift and tanker missions flown in support of air ops over Mali. At the time, the bill was somewhere between $17-19 million dollars. Relative chump change, but the French were incensed. Officials in Paris are quick to point out their folks are doing the fighting (and dying) over there. All they're asking from the U.S. is more airlift to get soldiers, beans and bullets into the war zone, and tanker support to sustain the air bridge to Mali. We should also point out that other NATO allies (notably Great Britain, Canada and Denmark) are providing support to the French without charge.
True, various French regimes have sabotaged U.S. interests on multiple occasions, but the Mali request seems tailor-made for the Obama Doctrine of "Leading from Behind." Instead, Mr. Obama is threatening to undermine the entire operation; without in-flight refueling, it will be impossible for France to sustain the current pace of air and ground operations, giving the rebels a chance to re-group and launch new offensives.
Besides, there's the little matter of how we got here in the first place. As noted in a previous post, many of the current problems in North Africa are a by-product of last year's revolution in Libya, which was fully supported--politically and militarily--by the Obama Administration. Now, with arms and fighters from Libya spreading to adjacent countries (and creating more havoc), Mr. Obama seems reluctant to deal with problem he helped create.
It sounds like a page out of the French foreign policy hand book circa 1970-1990, but this time around, it's the USA threatening to botch the entire operation over a few transport and tanker missions. Sacre bleu!