Sharing the cockpit of a helicopter on sizzling tarmac, French and British air force chiefs vowed to pursue the joint fight against jihadists in the heart of the Sahel even as the shadow of Brexit looms over their countries.
“We’ve got a long, fabulous history of working alongside each other, and I don’t expect anything to change anytime soon,” Royal Air Force (RAF) Chief of Air Staff Mike Wigston told AFP on a visit to the central Malian city of Gao with French counterpart Philippe Lavigne.
“If anything, we are going to work stronger together,” he said.
Backed by 100 British personnel in Gao, France has a 4,500-strong force supporting Sahel countries struggling with a seven-year-old jihadist revolt.
Thousands of civilians have been killed, and hundreds of thousands have fled their homes.
The two generals this weekend visited Mali, Niger and Chad, which with Burkina Faso and Mauritania form the so-called G5 Sahel, an anti-terror force.
Wigston said Mali and its neighbours were “the front line of instability.”
The priority of the Sahel deployment “is to stamp out the violent extremism which is making people’s lives a misery,” he said.
“But there is a wider security issue here which affects Europe and the potential for this instability and the conflict in this region to spill into Europe… so we are also here to protect Europe.”
Britain is set to leave the European Union by 31 January following a general election that gave the pro-Brexit Conservative party a large majority.
France sent troops into Mali in 2013 to help drive back Islamist insurgents who had seized the north of the country.
But attacks have continued since then, and the conflict has since spread to the country’s centre as well as to neighbouring Burkina Faso and Niger.
France’s Operation Barkhane remains in place to train and support poorly equipped local forces, but at a hefty cost that France’s EU allies have only partially eased.
Britain and France signed a defence cooperation pact in London in 2010 — and both sides have repeatedly said it will not be affected by Brexit.
Since July 2018, London has contributed three heavy-lift Chinook helicopters to France’s Sahel fight. They have clocked up some 1,600 hours of flying time to date, transporting about 11,000 personnel and 800 tonnes of freight.
The twin-rotor helicopters can haul nearly four tonnes of supplies and more than 30 troops at a time — a vital contribution in a region where road access to frontline troops is long and dangerous, with a high risk of mines and militia attacks.
The helicopter support “allows us to devote ourselves to air combat missions while our British comrades provide logistics, refuelling and troop transport,” said Loic, who heads France’s Barkhane air combat group in Mali.
In line with French military security protocol, the colonel can be identified only by his first name.
Without the British help, he said, “we would be forced to assign other helicopters or resort to slower, riskier, road convoys.”
‘With or without Brexit’
Fighters on the ground say the Chinooks have been invaluable.
They were deployed to help out last month when two French army helicopters crashed in Mali, killing all 13 on board and bringing to 41 the number of French troops killed in the Sahel region since 2013.
“For us, it would be a real plus if this (Chinook) capacity remained beyond the summer of 2020,” the current deadline for the British deployment, Colonel Loic said.
For his part, Wigston said: “I absolutely understand how vital this asset is to Barkhane, I will transmit (the message) to the political authorities in London.”
Aside from Barkhane, London has announced the deployment of 250 troops to the Sahel for three years from 2020 as part of the United Nations’ MINUSMA peacekeeping force in Mali.
Lavigne insisted that broader military cooperation would continue “with or without Brexit”.
“Our air forces are quite similar, they have the same operating capacities and expertise, and tomorrow we will continue to work together to bring security,” he said.