What the U.S. Can Learn from France’s Mali Intervention

The United States must maintain a robust global and regional architecture in order to deal with geopolitical tremors and disturbances.

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French troops in two armored personnel carriers drive through Mali's capital Bamako on the road to Mopti on Tuesday Jan. 15, 2013.

Michael P. Noonan is the director of the Program on National Security at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

While much has been made about U.S. transport aircraft supporting the movement of French combat troops to Mali (see for instance here), less attention has been paid to the regional garrisons and basing architecture that allowed the French to respond rapidly to the recent Ansar Dine offensive. One exception, however, can be found in this piece by Pierre Tran at DefenseNews.com. He notes that

French forces were able to respond quickly to Islamist and Tuareg insurgents as they headed toward Bamako in strife-torn Mali because equipment such as Gazelle helicopters was prepositioned in the region. Such light, simple and inexpensive equipment allows rapid intervention, but as [the death of a French pilot and the loss of two helicopters] shows, there is a price to pay.

[See a collection of political cartoons on defense spending.]

He goes on to say that:

Following the British military withdrawal "east of Suez" in 1968, France is the only European country with a network of bases in Africa, in its former colonies, and there is talk of drawing down these facilities.

The Mali action shows France is ready and willing to project military power in a post-Afghanistan environment in which people are averse to overseas operations.

The International Institute for Strategic Studies, a leading international security think tank and membership organization, in its Strategic Comments publication provides a useful map to show the moving pieces for how the initial movement of French troops occurred. Furthermore, the think tank's authoritative The Military Balance 2012 showed that—not counting involvement in United Nations observer missions—over 4,000 French soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines were serving on operations or in garrisons in the Central African Republic, Chad, Côte D'Ivoire, Djibouti, Gabon, and Senegal.

[Read the U.S. News Debate: Are Cuts to the Defense Budget Necessary?]

What, if anything, can this suggest to the United States? While clearly the defense investments and capabilities of the United States and France are vastly different, the recent French experience should be a reminder that it will be penny wise but pound foolish to roll up the vast network of global basing infrastructure that the United States either directly or indirectly controls or maintains access to abroad. In an era of austerity it will be very tempting to sheer these types of arrangements in order to extract cost savings, but we will enter future crises with the basing access infrastructure that exists rather than what we might like—to put a twist on an (in)famous Donald Rumsfeld-ism

Now this certainly doesn't mean that the United States needs to maintain a vast collection of such installations in Western Europe, for instance, but recent moves such as the stationing of U.S. Marines in Darwin, Australia hopefully shows that a robust global and regional architecture will remain in order to deal with geopolitical tremors and disturbances. Access to such facilities is necessary due to the unpredictability of political and humanitarian hotspots and because of the development of so-called "anti-access, area-denial" capabilities that threatens to put distance between our capabilities and their objectives.

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