Peacekeeping: Grandson Of Afrika Korps Melts

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May 2, 2017: Germany has had peacekeepers and special operations troops in the African nation of Mali since 2014. It has been a real challenge. Not so much for the combat troops but more for the logistical and support personnel. In early 2017 Germany agreed to expand their peacekeeper contingent in Mali from 650 to a thousand troops. Germany also agreed to send eight helicopters (four NH90 transports and four Tiger gunships.) While Germany also has troops in Iraq and Afghanistan (as trainers and advisors) but the largest contingent is in Mali.

The Germans are having the most problems keeping their vehicles operational in Mali, especially during the hottest months (March, April and May). Northern Mali is at the edge of the Sahara Desert and the French, who have operated there for over a century, warned that that heat, dust, sand and wind were hard on modern military equipment. The Germans thought they had learned to cope in Afghanistan but they underestimated conditions in Mali. Some equipment, like their Tiger helicopters and small quad-copter UAVs, cannot operate in the hottest hours of the day during the three hottest months. Their wheeled armored vehicles and trucks, although adapted to handle Afghanistan, went through spare parts more quickly in Mali and the German military supply system could not move fast enough to keep more than half the vehicles operational during the hot months.

When the Germans first arrived some wondered why local military units often used camels. They found that these animals were still the most reliable form of transport in the Sahara, especially during the hottest months or in many of the areas lacking roads or dirt tracks for vehicles.

German troops had not operated in the Sahara since 1943 (as the Afrika Korps) and modern military equipment turned out to be a lot more sensitive to extreme heat than their more primitive 1940s models. The Germans had other armed forces they could turn to for practical experience and where to find (or create) “Sahara ready” equipment. The French and Americans warned them and Israel even offered UAVs that were built for these conditions.

It was mainly a matter of money as the Germans have been cutting their defense budget since the 1990s. Yet sometimes the most economically attractive deal is the one best suited for desert operations. Thus in early 2017 the Germans finally had all three of their leased Israeli Heron I UAVs (similar to the American Predator) operational. The first Heron 1 arrived in October 2016 and its initial mission lasted nearly six hours. Peacekeepers in Mali have found Israeli UAVs very useful for keeping an eye on large, thinly inhabited, areas. The first one found there were no serious problems operating in the Mali desert-like conditions.

This form of climate shock is nothing new in this part of the world. During the Cold War Russia sold (or donated) a lot of equipment and weapons to nations in this part of the world. The local rulers soon discovered that the Russian designed and made equipment was not really suitable for Sahara conditions. The local tribes found better alternatives and this became news during the 1980s “Toyota Wars” in neighboring Chad. Libya sent a large force of its Russian equipped military into Chad, where it was defeated by local tribal militias using Japanese (usually Toyota) pickup trucks to get around more nimbly that all those Russian tanks, armored cars and trucks. The Japanese found that adapting their vehicles to harsh conditions enabled them to gain lots of market share in the oil rich Arab world.

Meanwhile Mali, Chad, Niger and the Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso have agreed to form a new “G5 counter-terrorism force” that will work in cooperation with the similar (but larger and better equipped) French force that has been operating in the Sahel (the semi-desert area south of the desert that stretches across northern Africa) since 2014. The G5 forces will be small (500-2,000 personnel) and consist largely of special operations troops. Many of these troops have already worked with their French counterparts or been trained by French or American special operations advisors. The German troops are not equipped to operate with the G5 Force because the locals have Toyota like equipment (often military vehicles from China) and the French have been operating in this region continuously for over a century.

Back in 2014 the French concluded that the Sahel was still troubled by thousands of Islamic terrorists and that this situation could not be taken care of quickly. In order to maintain pressure on the Islamic terrorists France established a special force of 3,000 troops to fight Islamic terrorists throughout the Sahel (actually just Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Chad and Burkina Faso). Since then the French force has grown to some 4,000 troops equipped with 200 armored vehicles, 20 transport and attack helicopters, six jet fighters and three large UAVs. There are also two twin engine C-160 air transports available for use within the Sahel. Supplies and reinforcements are regularly flown in using long-range transports (like the C-17) belonging to NATO allies (especially the U.S. and Britain). From the beginning the French force included a thousand French troops in Mali and the rest dispersed to other Sahel bases and ready to quickly move anywhere in the region that Islamic terrorist activity had been detected.

The G5 nations already cooperated by sharing intelligence and providing quick access to their territory by the French force. In addition the Americans provided satellite and UAV surveillance and other intel services (especially analysis and access to nearly all American data on Islamic terrorist activities in the region). Another reminder has been the high casualty rate among peacekeepers in Mali. UN peacekeepers in Mali suffered 26 dead during 2016, the highest number of any UN peacekeeping operation and 90 percent of the UN peacekeeper deaths in 2016, even though the Mali force comprises less than 15 percent of all UN peacekeepers. The Mali peacekeepers have been in this situation for three years in a row. Over a hundred peacekeepers (mostly UN, but some French) have died in Mali since they arrived in 2013. This is the highest casualty rate of all current UN peacekeeping operations. But for German troops the most formidable foe was the heat and dust.

 


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