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Assessing Mali's Air Capabilities in the Counter-Insurgency Context
Following the coup d’état against former Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta in 2020, the transitional authorities led by Col. Assimi Goita and Col. Sadio Camara have aimed to strengthen the Malian armed forces, enabling them to operate independently from French and European forces. Additionally, these transitional authorities have urged French and other European counter-terrorist forces to withdraw from Mali in 2022, claiming they are causing more harm than good.
Since Col. Goita's arrival with his junta, the Malian armed forces have focused on increasing their CT operations and providing further support to the air force. Despite previous claims by Malian authorities that they wish to conduct CT operations autonomously, Russian operatives and military equipment, as well as the Wagner group, were deployed in December 2021 in a supporting role.
The Malian forces are continuing their efforts in countering terrorism on the ground. However, it is clear that a new strategy was necessary to achieve victory against jihadi groups, particularly one that supports its air forces with airborne armament. As such, Mali has turned to Russia and Turkey for assistance, with the latter being well-known for its production of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, commonly referred to as drones.
Turkey and Mali Expand Mali’s Airpower
On 14 February 2023, Col. Sadio Camara, the Minister of Defence and Veterans Affairs, visited the Firhoun Ag Alançar camp in Gao, accompanied by a delegation that included Brig. Gen. Alou Diarra, the Chief of the Air Force Staff. During the visit, the delegation presented Air Force Base 300 with drones of type TBD . Speaking at the reception ceremony, Camara explained that the acquisition of these reconnaissance and combat drones would enhance the military's counter-terrorism capabilities, support operations, and provide greater confidence to soldiers involved in theatre operations.
The drones have reached the Gao base following an announcement on 22 December 2022, in which Malian armed forces said that the country had acquired its first batch of armed drones. At that time, Camara noted that Mali's partnerships with Russia, China, and Turkey had yielded exceptional positive operational results. The Malian Air Force stated that the TBD -type Turkish drones would enable the country's armed forces to ensure the safety of its citizens and safeguard national territory with complete autonomy. It is widely known that drones play an essential role in warfare by reducing risks and minimizing human casualties.
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The Turkish company Baykar Technologies developed the TB2 AUV for use by the Turkish armed forces. This medium-altitude, long-endurance (MALE) drone has not previously been used in Mali, as the French counter-terrorism operation ‘Operation Barkhane’ has primarily relied on the Reaper-type UAV.
In addition to several other combat aircraft purchased from Russia in March and August of 2022, the introduction of TB2 drones followed the receipt of several new aircraft in January 2023. On January 19, 2023, Mali received fighter jets and combat helicopters from Russia, including five Aero L-39 Albatros, one Sukhoi Su-25 fighter jet to replace the one that crashed in Gao Region in October 2022, and two Mil Mi-8 transport helicopters.
The Sukhoi Su-25 is a highly effective fighter jet that can carry out various types of missions, including bombing, fire support, and armed reconnaissance. It is known for its durability and ability to operate from unprepared runways, which makes it well-suited for the challenging conditions found in countries like Mali.
The Aero L-39 Albatros light combat aircraft and high-performance jet trainer were designed and produced in Czechoslovakia in the 1960s. The jet is mostly used for border surveillance and, despite its age, is still considered a capable aircraft for a variety of missions.
As for the Mil Mi-8 transport helicopter, it was designed by the Soviet Union in the 1960s. The Mi-8 is a versatile helicopter that can transport troops and material, perform airdrops, and conduct search and rescue missions. Its durability and ability to operate in a variety of environments make it a valuable asset for the Malian armed forces.
At the reception ceremony, Col. Camara emphasized the transitional authority's commitment to upholding the country's sovereignty through not just words, but actions. He emphasized that the modernization of the army was not a luxury but a necessity in order to effectively combat terrorism. Additionally, Camara noted that the Malian armed forces are eagerly awaiting further acquisitions to strengthen their capabilities.
One of the largest acquisitions that Mali landed was on 9 August 2022, when the Malian Air Force received a significant addition to its fleet composed of several aircraft. This batch included one CASA 295, Aero L-39 Albatros, Sukhoi Su-25 fighter jets, and one Mil Mi-24P attack helicopter. The new aircraft were intended to provide support to the Super Tucano and other aircraft already in service, such as the Mi-35M and Mil Mi-24. The August addition was a significant step in the modernization of the Malian armed forces.
Also, earlier in April 2022, the Malian Air Force received a sizable batch of equipment, which included two Mi-24P combat helicopters, radars, and other combat equipment. This acquisition followed the first batch of military equipment and helicopters received by Mali on 30 March 2022, which was aimed at supporting the country's two major ongoing counterterrorism operations.
These acquisitions of military equipment and helicopters, coupled with the recent arrival of additional combat aircraft, including the Sukhoi Su-25 and the Aero L-39 Albatros, and the introduction of the TB2 drones, are expected to provide a significant boost to the Malian military's counterterrorism capabilities.
Mali's Air Force Investment Fails to Stem Jihadist Activity
Mali's counter-terrorism operations are a crucial effort to address the ongoing threat of terrorism in the country. ‘Operation Maliko’ and ‘Operation Kêlêtigui’ are the two major operations being carried out by the Malian forces, with the latter believed to have involvement from the Russian Wagner group and accusations of atrocities against civilians.
According to ACLED data, the Malian Air Force has conducted 473 CT operations between January 2022 and January 2023, with a range of small to large-scale operations. During the same period, the air force also carried out 77 air and drone strikes.
The data indicates that air strikes reached their peak in August 2022, following the acquisition of major aircraft from Russia. The increase in activity is also likely due to the rainy season in Mali, which can disrupt the movement of jihadis and make them easier targets. The air force activity gradually declined after August until the end of the rainy season in September, and then slowed down towards the end of the year. Overall, the Malian Air Force's activity has been an important aspect of the country's new strategy for counter-terrorism.
However, despite heavy investment in the Malian Air Force, the impact on the ground in countering jihadi activity, particularly in the Menaka Region, has been limited.
The air force has utilized its new aircraft only sparingly in response to ISGS attacks in Gao and Menaka regions. Even with the increased air strikes and counter-terrorism operations across Mali, JNIM has maintained its hold on large areas of the country, particularly in Mopti, Segou, Timbuktu, and Gao, imposing its own local agreements on the populace. The group has also extended its reach into neighboring Burkina Faso and Niger Republic and working on consolidating various sub-groups throughout the Sahel region.