From January 2014 until March 2017 helicopters of The Royal Netherlands Air Force (RNLAF) have been active for the UN in Mali in Africa by supporting the MINUSMA mission with helicopters and special forces and other personnel. Frank Visser visited Helidet 5 based at Gao airport in the East of Mali.
Origin of Minusma
Just as in a number of other countries in the region various Islamic militias tried to conquer Mali from the north. The most important parties are the NMLA (National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad), MOJWA (Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa), AQIM (Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb) en Ansar Dine. The instable interim-government has not been able to halt the advance of these militias and it appeared that the country would be trampled and collapse into chaos. Fast intervention was crucial and thus the UN Security Council passed resolution 2085. When the Malian government requested assistance from the French, their former colonial ruler, towards the end of December 2012 Operation Serval was a fact. Soon the French succeeded with the help of several coalition partners to drive back the Islamic fighters to the north of Mali. After just over a year and a half the French had finished Operation Serval on 15 July 2014 to subsequently start Operation Barkana on August 1. Together with five African countries they have carried out this anti-terrorist operation in the Sahel region from their headquarters in N'Djamena in Chad until now. Simultaneously the UN carries out a similar mission called MINUSMA (Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali) from the Malian capital of Bamako. However, unlike Operation Barkana this is not a fighting mission; it is mainly meant to restore and strengthen stability in Mali. The Netherlands were asked by the UN to contribute. As Mali is a vast and complex country reconnaissance and obtaining the right information are crucial and that was the reason that the Dutch government committed itself to participate in MINUSMA in the course of 2013. To carry out the mission from Gao adequately the Dutch government determined to deliver equipment and military personnel, consisting of an ASIFU (All Source Information Fusion Unit) stationed in Bamako and Special Forces becoming part of SOLTG (Special Operations Land Task Force) in Gao. In addition four Boeing AH-64D Apaches of 301 Squadron and extra personnel were added to the mission. As a platform the AH-64D is extremely adapted to require the information from the air in a desert region and if necessary can be deployed/brought into action for air support. Besides the AH-64Ds the Boeing UAV Scan Eagle for gaining information from the air was added. During Helidet 1 and 2 French helicopters, stationed at Gao airport, were called upon for air transport. Since air transport could not always be guaranteed, the Dutch government decided to send an extra three Boeing CH-47D Chinooks of 298 Squadron to Gao. Just as the AH-64Ds the CH-47Ds are part of the DHC (Defense Helicopter Command), stationed at Gilze-Rijen Airbase in the Netherlands. These aircraft were operational from Helidet 3 starting at 15 September 2014. With this addition the detachment increased to a number of around 450 personnel.
CH-47D of 298 Squadron returning from a MEDIVAC-mission.
Participation in the operation ‘Barkana’ has never been an issue for the Dutch government. Politically, however, parliament expressed a preference for the UN MINUSMA mission. Early 2014 Helidet 1 started with four AH-64D Apaches a four-month deployment. In September 2014 three CH-47D Chinooks completed Helidet 3.
CH-47D of 298 Squadron over Mali. Photo: Gerben van Es (Ministry of Defence, Gerben van Es)
CH-47D just before starting its mission. Because the Dutch helicopters operated for MINUSMA all were UN-marked.
Technical personel of 298 Squadron inspecting a CH-47D engine with a flexible camera.
The mission of Helidet 5 under command of pilot Lt. Col. Alferink began last April. As CO of 298 Squadron Lt. Col. Alferink has gained ample experience as a pilot. Concerning his mission in Mali now he commented: “Our main duty is reconnaissance and acquiring information for the UN. A platform as the AH-64D is extremely suitable for this task. We are the eyes and ears of the UN. The CH-47Ds are especially deployed for Medivac and air transport.” According to him there is a difference with the mission in Afghanistan. “There we operated under the flag of ISAF (International Security Assistance Force), an operation carried out by NATO and authorized by the UN. MINUSMA, however, is pure a UN mission and so we only work here under the authority of the UN, which involves more telephone and mail contacts. The UN has got more rules and procedures, which implies that the administrative part is greater than in Afghanistan”. The start of Helidet 5 was special in every respect. On April 6 during a ‘Barkhane’ mission French troops freed the Dutchman Sjaak Rijke, who had been held hostage by an organization allied to Al-Qaeda for over three years. Though the Dutch were not directly involved they still played a part. During the liberation action a French Cougar stranded and the latter were asked for assistance. The tail of the aircraft had to be replaced and French helicopters could not carry out the transport, so a CH-47D was chartered to transport the tail in a container to the stranded Cougar to have it repaired on-site. Besides the principal tasks Helidet 5 has also been responsible for dealing with the AH-64D Apache, which crashed on March 17 killing both pilots. Immediately after the fatal crash, which happened during a shooting exercise, all flights of the Dutch Apaches were suspended and a committee of inquiry started its work. Later on the Ministry of Defense announced that the cause of the crash was linked to a defective part of the operating system. In May the operations with the Apaches were resumed. Though the aircraft did not fly, they were definitely not grounded. This was done consciously in order to immediately start carrying out the missions. Being grounded would have meant waiting for an authorization to restart flying with loss of valuable time. It was considered to send the pilots back to the Netherlands as they did not acquire any flying hours but this did not happen. In May the crashed Apache was transported in a container to the Netherlands and replaced by an aircraft of 301 Squadron.
AH-64D Apache over the river Niger near Gao. Photo: Gerben van Es (Ministry of Defence, Gerben van Es).
Pre-flight check by an Apache pilot.
Monthly the UN buys flying hours and each assignment is commissioned by MINUSMA Headquarters in Bamako. All information gathered is submitted to MINUSMA and if necessary shared with the French (Operation “Barkhane”) or Malian soldiers. Lt. Col. Alferink: ”The ROEs (Rules of Engagement) have been laid down with the UN and the Force Commander determines whether the use of arm systems is required.” It occurred once during Helidet 4, when UN soldiers were under fire at Tabankort. As warning shots of the Apache were of no avail an AGM-114 Hellfire missile was launched to eliminate the target. Lt. Col. Alferink: “This was the first time UN troops destroyed a target in this way. The incident at Tabankort was evidently a hostile act, as was confirmed later on, so our action was legitimate according to the ROE.” To prevent further escalation in the region Helidet temporarily based its Apaches at the FOL (Forward Operation Location) in Kidal.
Lt. Col. Alferink: “We can dispose of four FOLs, namely Menaka, Timboektoe, Kidal and Tessalit. We have arranged with the UN under what conditions we will operate from a FOL. In this respect one should think of clean and tested fuel, board and lodgings, Force Protection and so on.” At the end of 2015 the contribution of Dutch soldiers to MINUSMA was prolonged by a year. Together with Helidet the DHC came with a military advice stating the necessity of a continuation of the mission. The Dutch government obviously prolongation the mission.