Vast swathes of rainforests, deserts, mountain ranges, lakes and rivers break up the African continent, and a lack of transport infrastructure such as hardened roads or rail connections in many parts of Africa makes ground transport inefficient for deployments over long distances. In most cases, especially when time is of the essence or when large volumes of equipment and supplies need to be transported into a remote theater, there is no alternative to air transport.
This need for a well-developed airlift capability in Africa limits the number of actors that are capable of facilitating large military deployments over long distances far beyond their own borders. In fact, the United States is the only country with a strong airlift capability, thanks to its massive fleet of aircraft, which contributes to a high degree of readiness. For the majority of countries, it is difficult to develop even a nascent capability due to the high cost and level of expertise required to obtain and operate an airlift fleet. This is especially challenging for African countries with few means. The transport aircraft required are already expensive to buy, not to mention the costs of lifetime maintenance and training crews.
Standard aircraft also depend on well-maintained airfields, and apart from the fact that these are scarce in Africa's conflict zones, military operations also require the presence of an air bridge to guarantee a continuous flow of supplies and move large amounts of troops and equipment into the theater. This causes airlift efforts in the continent to depend on large fleets of high-end specialty aircraft that can carry a large tonnage and still land on a wide variety of surfaces, further raising the cost required to maintain an airlift fleet capable of operating effectively in Africa. For example, the cost for operating a single A400M medium airlift aircraft, which has a capacity of 37,000 kilograms (81,571 pounds) or 116 passengers, has been estimated to rise above $800 million throughout its lifecycle.
These prohibitive factors leave many countries unable to develop such a capability at all, and even some of the more advanced Western militaries struggle with it.
France's Recent Interventions in Africa
While African states mostly lack the airlift capability they would need to deploy their forces across the continent, France, which has been actively involved in African military operations, has a sizable operational air transport fleet. Still, France has faced serious challenges in maintaining its airlift capability and mustering the necessary air transport for the ongoing interventions it has conducted in the Central African Republic and Mali.
Procurement is expensive and time consuming in the best of times, and budget restrictions in defense spending have cut into numerous programs, including France's next generation of transport aircraft. Despite numerous delays and cost overruns, the French air force has stuck to its plan of replacing its air transport fleet with Airbus' A400M transport planes. However, the first of at least fifteen of these planes that France will purchase only arrived in September 2013, leaving France with a less than ideal transport capability consisting mostly of its Hercules and Transall transport planes. Consequently, France has had to depend on the ability of its Western partners to deploy aircraft and support crews to facilitate its interventions.
During the January 2013 French intervention in Mali, airlift support was especially necessary to overcome time constraints because al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb was expanding its territory quickly south and threatening the intervention's staging area. France depended heavily on the additional airlift capability delivered by 11 C-17 Globemasters, eight C-130 Hercules and three Transall C-160 aircraft, with a combined carrying capacity of 1,063,909 kilograms or 2,489 passengers. The United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, Denmark, Belgium and the United Arab Emirates all contributed planes to this force.
This multinational transport fleet was not only responsible for the initial deployment of French troops and their equipment from France and bases within Africa, it also made it possible for African countries such as Chad to deploy forces to Mali to take part in the operations within a minimal amount of time. Even the ongoing French intervention in the Central African Republic, although significantly smaller in size, has led France to call on countries such as Poland and Belgium to assist in air transport, while the United States has, at France's request, deployed two C-17 Globemaster aircraft to transport Rwandan troops to the Central African Republic's capital.
The assistance of other countries in delivering this capability is also a way to share the burden of such interventions. Having its partners in NATO and the European Union deliver critical airlift capabilities takes financial and political pressure off of France. The reluctance to deploy combat troops into African conflicts is much less of an issue when they are able to take part in these interventions in "merely" a support role.
While relieving France of some of the costs of these interventions, this non-aggressive support to military operations in Africa also allows other countries to secure their interests while not having to resort to a pure "hard power" approach. For countries such as the United States or Germany, taking part in these operations allows them to contribute to the fight against Islamist militancy in the Sahel region or humanitarian disasters, for example, without having to actively commit troops to combat operations. The deployment of transport aircraft can be seen as a much less hostile way to secure interests through international cooperation, more akin to "soft power." This not only prevents countries from being tied down in military interventions, but is also much more palatable to the domestic electorates for whom military deployments are often a sensitive subject.
A Lack of Alternatives to Western Forces
Apart from French military operations in Africa, African states conducting large-scale long-distance military operations, which typically take place in the context of African Union or United Nations operations, do not possess their own airlift capabilities. While they may be able to commit troops to military operations, they depend on non-African countries to transport these troops and the supplies they depend on into the theater of operations. This has led to an ongoing airlift support agreement between NATO and the African Union, which has seen the United States airlift Burundian peacekeepers into Somalia or more recently Britain's Royal Air Force deploy transport aircraft in support of peacekeepers in South Sudan.
This dependency translates into continuing Western military involvement in Africa.
Among African countries, there is no real dependable long-range air transport architecture that is capable of supporting the many military operations in the continent. Some African countries did demonstrate considerable airlift capabilities in the past, such as Libya's airlift operations supporting the deployment of its troops in Chad during the 1978-1987 Chadian-Libyan conflict. While several countries are still capable of maintaining a transport fleet for internal purposes, they lack the ability to maintain sufficiently large fleets or expertise in operating transport aircraft on foreign airfields due to the extra requirements regarding security, refueling and maintenance beyond their own borders. Part of this may be explained by countries' limited strategic ambitions to operate far beyond their immediate periphery in Africa, although the lack of military capabilities may also be a factor that limits these strategic ambitions.
Even South Africa, with one of sub-Saharan Africa's better-developed militaries, has failed to maintain an operational airlift capability. It depends on an outdated fleet of transport aircraft, from when the country maintained a more effective airlift fleet under the more militarily active apartheid regime. Poor maintenance standards have left only about a quarter of its largest transport planes operational. This low rate of readiness means South Africa was unable to quickly intervene when its troops in the Central African Republic suffered heavy losses in March 2013 and caused massive delays in the deployment of the South African contingent of the U.N. intervention brigade to the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
While African countries have troops available for security operations, massive geographic and economic constraints in the continent cause African militaries to depend on training and airlift support from the handful of countries with the ability to do so. This dependency translates into continuing Western military involvement in Africa, which blurs the line between hard and soft power in their relations with African states.