January 21, 2013 10:29 pm

France and US bicker over fuel

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France and the US are at loggerheads over a French request for American air tankers to help refuel its jet aircraft operating over Mali, amid concerns in Paris that its military operations could come under strain without them.

As France presses ahead with air strikes on jihadist fighters, military chiefs in Paris have told the US that they need three US air tankers to supply Rafale and Mirage jets, which have to fly huge distances over north Africa to carry out ground attacks.

French officials believe that the Pentagon is willing to provide the three air tankers that France needs to back up its own fleet of five KC-135s. But French officials say the White House is “dragging its feet” over the issue and looking to limit its engagement. The Pentagon did not reply to initial enquiries from the Financial Times about the request from France.

Washington’s reluctance to provide the aircraft is being seen in France as a sign of US caution about French operations in Mali.

“The refuelling issue is a problem and we would like to overcome it,” said a French official. “Our current fleet of tankers is not sufficient to keep Rafale and the Mirage 2000D operating on a permanent basis above an operational theatre of this scale.”

The US has offered France C-17 transport aircraft to fly troops and equipment into Mali. In the last few days, the US has gone some way to reducing acute tensions with France that emerged last week after the US wanted to charge France for the use of the C-17 aircraft.

At the start of the Mali intervention, Washington insisted that the French government would have to pay the $20m bill for the use of American C-17s, needed to carry French mechanised battalions into theatre. After fierce protests from France, the US announced on Monday that it would provide the C-17s at no cost.

French officials are keen to stress that the US has been highly supportive of France in providing intelligence and reconnaissance over Mali by means of surveillance drones. “The support from the US in that area has been impeccable and we have a lot of collaboration,” an official said. France is also keen to play up the strong support it has received from Britain which dispatched two C-17s to Paris within hours of the start of the French intervention in Mali.

Britain now looks as though it will beef up its support for the French mission by providing Sentinel R1 Intelligence Surveillance and Reconnaissance aircraft. Senior Ministry of Defence officials said the provision of the aircraft might be agreed at a meeting of Britain’s National Security Council on Tuesday.

However, while the provision of drones and reconnaissance aircraft is welcome, defence experts say the Mali mission has exposed serious gaps in French and European capability. “The French, like the Germans, are in a catastrophic situation when it comes to the Medium Altitude Long Endurance drone,” says François Heisbourg, Special Adviser, Foundation for Strategic Studies in Paris. “This drones issue is the one area where we are pathetic. At some stage, we will have to buy drones off the shelf from the Americans and develop them.”

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