Lessons From Mali
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Lessons From Mali

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The French-led intervention in Mali appears to be accomplishing some of its short-term objectives.  However, just as with Libya, the inability of France to conduct a medium-sized operation in a nearby country without U.S. assistance is raising eyebrows . France is experiencing shortfalls in several areas, but most notably in air logistics, including in-flight refueling and air transport.  The Obama administration has thus far lent measured assistance, recently backing away from a requirement that the French pay the Pentagon for services rendered. As Michael O’Hanlon has argued, the key to U.S. military supremacy lies in its system of global logistics, rather than in its most sophisticated weaponry .

To be sure, France’s problems may be temporary.  The long awaited arrival of the A400M should resolve many of these logistical difficulties, and the aerial refueling situation may also improve. Nevertheless, the French experience has some important lessons for Asia-Pacific players. Military capabilities mean little without the ability to transport forces across distance, and a major logistical commitment requires sealift, airlift, and aerial refueling.

The development of the Y-20, assuming it goes into full production, demonstrates that the PLA is beginning to take airlift seriously. The Y-20 is expected to replace older Russian aircraft, and give the PLAAF a capability similar to that of the C-17 Globemaster. Indeed, the Y-20 may someday capture some of the emerging ASEAN market for large, advanced transport aircraft.

The transport fleets of most ASEAN states are dominated by C-130s and a variety of lighter aircraft, such as the An-26 and the C-212 Aviocar.  Japan and South Korea have similar, if somewhat more modern, transport squadrons. With increasingly dense littoral populations living in a disaster-prone region, the ability of ASEAN militaries to conduct airlift may become their critical operational capability. Of all Indo-Pac states, India has made the most serious investment with an order of 10 C-17s.

Air diplomacy” may have a role to play. The pre-eminence of the United States in air transport continues to give it an advantage in crisis situations, as the U.S. military can deliver people and material faster and in greater quantities than any regional player. A Y-20 equipped PLAAF may someday be able to cut into this advantage. In the medium term, we could perhaps imagine an Asian alternative to the Heavy Airlift Wing, a organization serving the airlift needs of a consortium of European states.  The HAW owns 3 C-17 Globemasters (operating with Hungarian markings), giving member states a limited heavy airlift capacity.  Of course, any kind of multilateral military organization requires substantial agreement across parties, a requirement that does not necessarily hold even in ASEAN, much less across the panoply of East Asia states. Nevertheless, some sort of shared airlift capacity might make sense in context of the operations-other-than-war that so often occupy Asian military organizations.

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H_K
January 31, 2013 at 07:50

Well, as you know, there's lies, damn lies, statistics… and then there's the WSJ editorial page! Glad to see you do a much better job of keeping things in context.
First piece of context. US assistance in Mali wasn't necessary per se… Helpful in accelerating the tempo? Hell yes. Much appreciated? Certainly. But not do-or-die necessary. That's because so far the USAF has only moved 400 tons, out of a 10,000 ton air/sealift effort. (Other allies have moved about twice as much tonnage as the USAF)
Second, as you point out, the A400M will do much to solve France (and Europe's) logistics deficit. Everyone knew that things would be a bit dicey until it came online, but what could be done? (For financial and technical reasons, C-17s were NOT the answer) The reasonable expectation was that this temporary capability gap would be backfilled by allies. Same way the French backfill the UK's carrier gap, and Europeans backfill Uncle Sam's minehunting gap… that's what allies are for.
Last piece of context: don't be deceived by the lack of fighting on the ground. Logistically speaking, this was quite a mammoth task. The French put a medium cavalry brigade in a landlocked country, and marched it up 800 miles of fairly inhospitable terrain… all in less less than 20 days from the word "Go". That's Normandy to Berlin, or twice the distance from Kuweit to Bagdad. And they did this without cannibalizing their troops elsewhere in the world, all while running special operations off Somalia and deploying a heavy regimental combat team to the Gulf.
So all in all, that's pretty good bang-for-your buck, on about 1/16th of the US defence budget. Of course we can argue all day about whether they should be spending more on defense, and why they don't have enough armed drones, tankers etc. But let's remember that if the rest of Europe was more like the French (and like the Brits), that would actually be a step in the right direction… and the US would be able to do a lot more "leading from behind"!

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