Launched on Jan. 11, 2013, at the request of the Malian authorities and the United Nations to help the local army stop the advance of rebel groups towards southern Mali, the French military campaign in West Africa, dubbed “Operation Serval” kicked off with a raid performed by attack helicopters to stop the progression of a column of jihadist elements enroute to Konna, near Mopti in the center of the country.
According to the French MoD, that on Jan. 12 released the first official information about the French activities in Africa, this first action was led by Gazelle helicopters with the 4ème Régiment d’Hélicoptères des Forces spéciales (RHFS), armed with HOT missiles and 20 mm caliber guns and allowed the destruction of four vehicles and led to the withdrawal of the column.
During the raid, one of the choppers was hit and a French pilot was wounded by small arms fire and died at a local hospital.
However, the air campaign to support the Malian army did not only involve light attack choppers.
On the night between January 11 and 12, four Mirage 2000D jets of the Epervier group, conducted air strikes in the north of the country. The attack planes took off from N’Djamena, in Chad, and were supported by two tankers C135.
Two Mirage F1 CRs, six Mirage 2000Ds, three C135 tankers, one C130 and one C160 Transall were deployed to N’Djamena. Rafale multirole fighters were immediately put on heightened alert status and readied for deployment while Tigre attack helicopters were dispatched to Ouagadougou, in Burkina Faso.
About 200 soldiers belonging to the ground component of the Epervier were transferred to the Malian capital, Bamako, by means of C-130 Hercules and C-160 Transall airlifters.
Jan. 13 saw the first involvement of the Rafale combat planes in the French air campaign in Mali.
Four “omnirole” jets from Saint Dizier airbase, took off from their base and, supported by two C-135FR tankers, attacked rebel’s training camps, infrastructure, and logistic deposits before recovering to N’Djamena airbase, in Chad.
Although it was later denied, the aircraft crossed the Algerian airspace on their way to Mali thanks to an agreement with Algeria, that has authorized unlimited access to fly over its territory to the French government.
The Rafales carried three fuel tanks, six GBU-49 5(00-lb Enhanced Paveway II GPS/INS-equipped GBU-12/B Laser Guided Bomb variants) or six AASM (Armement Air-Sol Modulaire – Air-to-Ground Modular Weapon) along with the Damocles pod.
According to the Rafale News blog, this was the first time that the Rafale used the dual mode (laser/GPS) GBU-49 guided bomb during a war mission as the integration of this kind of weapon was only recently completed.
Based on the video released by the French MoD after the raid and showing the four jets landing in Chad at the end of their strike mission, 21 weapons were dropped during the attack.
After a pretty intense start, the war against rebels in Mali turned, at least momentarily, into a low intensity air campaign.