Lessons From Mali

21st century military capabilities mean little without the ability to transport forces across distance.

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.