Britain Seals French Military Axis in West Africa

Sailors aboard the HMS Northumberland watch as the French warship Jean de Vienne approaches during a replenishment at sea, October 22, 2012

Sailors aboard the HMS Northumberland watch as the French warship Jean de Vienne approaches during a replenishment at sea, October 22, 2012 (Defence Images)

British support for France’s military intervention in West African Mali, announced this week, follows a deepening of defense and foreign policy coordination between Europe’s two Atlantic powers that notably excludes the continent’s central power — Germany.

Prime Minister David Cameron’s office said on Tuesday that 240 British soldiers would join the counterinsurgency effort in Mali where France joined government forces in pushing Islamist rebels out of cities and towns in the north of the country. The United Kingdom has also contributed two transport aircraft to the operation.

During the last several years, Britain and France, who account for half of European defense spending in NATO, have announced several plans to strengthen military relations. While they deny plans to share an aircraft carrier in the future, they have pledged to be able to deploy an integrated carrier strike group by the next decade. They have also agreed to establish a joint expeditionary force and seek to jointly develop an unmanned aerial vehicle program.

The “defining moment” in this renewed Anglo-French cooperation, according to a joint declaration released in February of last year, was their intervention in Libya the year before.

After the United Nations authorized military intervention in the North African country in March 2011 to protect anti-government protesters from a violent crackdown by Muammar Gaddafi’s regime, Britain, France and the United States intervened to disrupt its ability to target civilians. Airstrikes and special forces operations during the next six months helped the country’s armed opposition headquartered in the eastern city of Benghazi advance on Tripoli. Gaddafi was finally killed in October.

American participation in the mission was initially limited except for a one day blitzkrieg. United States Air Force and Navy operations virtually disabled Libyan air defenses and destroyed many of its airfields in less than twenty-four hours. Then it was up to the British and French to take the lead, the very nations that had pushed for the intervention despite American reluctance to be engulfed in yet another conflict in the Muslim world.

The United States continued to fly about a quarter of all air missions over Libya, including refueling and intelligence sorties, while unmanned drone planes struck a number of targets. American fighter jets weren’t particularly involved after the first days of the intervention, much to the chagrin of the European allies.

Only after defense secretary Robert Gates had chastised the allies for running “short of munitions” in mere weeks and “requiring the US, once more, to make up the difference” did the Obama Administration step up its engagement. An intensification in American aerial surveillance in and around Tripoli in particular was cited by NATO officials as a major factor in helping to tilt the balance in favor of the rebels. According to the Pentagon, the number of American airstrikes nearly doubled during the last twelve days before they could enter the capital.

At the time, France had already had to withdraw its single aircraft carrier from the operation. Norway could not continue flying sorties half a year into it. Germany, Italy and Turkey hardly contributed to the effort, if at all.

But even if they lacked the ability to mount and sustain the Libyan operation, France and the United Kingdom at least had the will whereas Germany and Italy, which had major commercial interests in Libya, were extremely reluctant to intervene.

Similarly, the Germans have little interest in the fate of Mali and refused to support France’s intervention there.

A lack of clear strategic interests hasn’t stopped Britain from praising France’s initiative and supporting it, however minimally, with transport aircraft and troops. The Franco-German axis, which otherwise dominates in Europe, seems to falter while the entente cordiale rides again.

Miguel Nunes Silva explained the dynamics behind this strategic shift at the Atlantic Sentinel after the Libyan expedition. “Whereas during the Pax Americana of the last twenty years, France and Germany together cooperated to assert themselves vis-à-vis the United States,” he wrote, “the recent economic downturn across the Atlantic and the imbalance between the development of Germany and that of the rest of Europe has considerably changed the equation.”

Berlin no longer has a clear interest in further bankrolling Atlantic adventures which bring it no benefit and among the European Union’s three largest powers, it stands as primus inter pares. German diplomacy has followed suit.

Paris, he suggested, has moved into rapprochement with Britain in order to hedge its bets. The change in government there last summer, when the more Atlanticist and conservative president Nicolas Sarkozy was replaced by Socialist Party leader François Hollande, does not appear to have affected French strategic thinking.

If both nations advance their program of military integration, more than fifty years after the Suez crisis, when the United States urged Britain, France and Israel to suspend operations against Nasser’s Egypt and effectively undermined what prestige the two imperial powers had left, the Anglo-French relationship could shape the geostrategic landscape of Europe anew.

British and French interests extend beyond the Mediterranean — where Libya and Tunisia could yet prove decisive in bringing about Sarkozy’s hopes of Mediterranean Union — into French speaking West Africa — where French troops also intervened in 2011 to end unrest after presidential elections in Côte d’Ivoire — and the Gulf of Aden, where European maritime patrols defend oil tankers from Somali pirates.

Judging from Gates’ complaints, the Americans won’t mind being relieved of responsibility from all three areas so they can concentrate on the Persian Gulf, the Indian Ocean and the Pacific rim. Only if there’s an immediate crisis, as was the case in Libya, would the United States still have come in to help their allies who, at present, lack the budget and materiel to sustain such efforts independently