Michael Shurkin, a political scientist at the Rand Corporation, is the author of a recent and interesting research report about the operation Serval in Mali ("France's War in Mali: Lessons for an Expeditionary Army"). He kindly agreed to answer some questions to better understand, in some way, this US point of view about this French operation and to describe some lessons learned for the US. Army. Thanks!
1/ What are the 2 or 3 main characteristics of the operation Serval, from an U.S. point of view?
The three main characteristics of French expeditionary operations that are of interest to the US military are 1) France's comfort and facility with operating at a small scale; 2) French units agility with respect to task organization, specifically the capacity to aggregate, disaggregate, and re-aggregate units as required with apparently little waste or, to use the term I hear most often in the Army, "turbulence;" and 3) acceptance of risk, which is related to the first two points. The French Army in Serval took risks that the US Army would not have taken. This is related to the size issue because the US would respond to risk primarily by sending more and heavier forces with greater resources.
2/ Which lessons learned from French military habits for the US Army as a regionnaly aligned force in progress?
I think one lesson is the idea of a persistent relationship. Units that go to Africa, for example, should keep going to Africa so that they can build up institutional knowledge and establish long term relationships with Africans and other relevant actors (such as the French military). There is also another question related to working with and training local security forces. The French appear to be better at both, at least in Africa, and I suspect that the US is guilty of failing to understand the degree to which other nations' militaries are different and can neither be remade in the American image nor treated as if they were like us. Of course, the French approach might have its own problems, and I hope to identify them.
3/ And about modularity for task organization, while general Odierno predicts future operations with small units?
I think this is one of the most important "lessons learned" for the US military regarding Serval. The US Army can operate "small," but it is not designed to do so and appears to do so against its will, with all sorts of assorted inefficiencies. The French Army operates small by design and has made an art out of what the US Army does only when it has to. However, there is a growing acceptance that the Army needs to conduct small operations more often than it needs to conduct the large scale operations for which it is designed.
4/ Interestingly, for some specifications (maneuver vs firepower, minimal logistics, aged vehicle fleets, fleet management organization...) often presented as risks in France, the study shows that they are rather strengths. How to explain this?
They were strengths in this instance and probably are strengths in most French missions in Africa (like Sangaris in CAR). However, what French analysts and planners need to think about is whether or not France just got lucky in Mali, and if having an Army that's good for Mali is good enough. What if the opposition in Mali had been more of a "hybrid" force like Hizbullah, one equipped with advanced weapons like RPG-29s and Kornets, or even simply one that is more adept at the use of old-fashioned RPG-7s , IEDs, and mortars to organize complex attacks and harass units moving against it? What if it had organized ambushes against French supply convoys? Why didn't it do that? The French military likes to think that it did well because it is "good," andthat its high-speed maneuver campaign disoriented the enemy and prevented it from taking the initiative. The enemy could never catch its breath, according to the French Army's narrative. I'm sure there's some truth to that, but how much? Maybe the enemy did poorly not because of anything the French military did to it but because it never had the ability to put up much of a fight against any force that was more competent than the Malian military? If that was the case, how confident can one be that a better opponent would have done just as badly because of French tactics? I do not have an answer to that, but I think that's what the French military needs to be worried about. If I were in the French military, I would be interviewing captured Islamist soldiers and reviewing intelligence reporting to get their side of the campaign. What, really, was the effect of French tactics against them? Can the French military take credit for their poor performance? Or maybe the Islamists simply never were up to a defensive campaign. By the way, I hope it is clear that I'm not saying the French Army cannot handle more difficult opponents - it might do very well against, say, Hizbullah. I just think the French Army needs to ask itself if it can. Serval in and of itself is not proof it can or cannot. The question is open.
Interestingly, France's CDEF last year published a desert warfare manual that analyzes military tactics in the Sahel. That document stresses the offensive nature of indigenous forces (all offense, no real defensive capability) and also makes clear that the French force structure and doctrine are perfect for countering indigenous forces, mainly by ensuring that they cannot mount an offensive, which is all they know how to do. Move fast, maneuver in depth, keep the initiative, done. How well would the French Army fair against a different kind of enemy? The answer to that question might be found, perhaps, in Afghanistan. I would love to write a companion study on how well the French Army faired there.
By the way, I should note that French officers I spoke with insisted that the Islamist fighters in the Adrar des Ifoghas were as good as the Taliban. I have my doubts.
Now, the French Army is well into the process of replacing all of its ancient vehicles with new ones, first VBCI and soon VBMR. These are heavier vehicles with more protection and greater sustainment requirements. Maybe these new vehicles represent an appropriate response to the need to have a force that's capable of handling more dangerous scenarios than Mali? It will be interesting to see how well the French Army can manage the greater sustainment requirements, however. I'd love to know, for example, what it cost to sustain VBCIs in Mali compared with VABs.
5/ Do you think there is a "French touch," a specific way for the French Army in operations as often said in France, after your study in depth of the operation Serval?
I think so, and it has two related aspects. One has to do with what the French Army has inherited from its colonial past, above all the Troupes de Marine, an approach that is attuned to local populations and takes into account the fact that one is perpetually outnumbered and under-resourced. Colonel Goya calls it a "global approach," and at its best, it translates into being "smart," because it means one cannot rely on brute force and mass. The other relates to what I see as more modest ambitions for what military force can do. It is my understanding that French leaders and planners, because they are aware of just how small France's military resources are, try to scale down their objectives proportionately and aim for narrowly defined, limited objectives, things they know they can achieve. One sees this in Serval in the French Army's insistence on focusing exclusively on the task of combatting armed Islamist groups while refusing to get involved in any of Mali's other security and political problems, as well as limiting its involvement in security assistance by working through the European Union. The military in effect is saying, "we can kill AQIM, so we'll do that, but we can't do any of those other things and won't get involved in them." This might be a mistake in Mali, but in general France's relatively sparing, limited, and careful application of military power is prudent.