Belgium may support a French intervention in Bangui

  • On Thursday, the United Nations may authorize a French-African intervention.
  • Belgium will probably support France militarily.

“Let’s just say we are in a prudent planning phase,” Belgian Defense minister Pieter De Crem (CD&V) told us Wednesday. France has approached Belgium to ask for its support in a military intervention that Paris is planning in the Central African Republic (CAR). The Belgian army is studying – and planning – the nature of its potential contribution.

Didier Reynders (MR), minister of Foreign Affairs, has said that his department is viewing this appeal “in a positive way,” and the same attitude prevails in the Defense department, for at least two of the three French requests. According to our information, Paris wants aid from allied countries for three types of air support: strategic flights from Europe to CAR, tactical flights within CAR, and heavy helicopter support for serious medical evacuations. Belgium cannot respond to the third request because it does not have heavy lift helicopters, and therefore no medically equipped heavy helicopters. “Medevac” missions performed in Mali by Belgian Agusta A-109 helicopters are only for light evacuations.

Belgian A330 and C-130s

On the other hand, Belgium could assist with strategic and tactical flights. These are big words for a simple reality. In the first case the Belgian army’s one Airbus A-330 (a leased aircraft, already deployed in Mali) would be used to transport troops and perhaps cargo between Western Europe and Africa; in the second case, C-130s would be used for short flights within CAR.

Although the French requests are still theoretical at this stage, they obviously won’t be acted upon by Belgium unless a UN resolution on Paris’ plans is adopted. However, it seems likely that, on Thursday, the United Nations Security Council will adopt a resolution that mandates the Pan-African force present in the CAR (MISCA) to deploy “for a period of twelve months” to “protect civilians and reestablish order and security by appropriate means.” That resolution will also authorize French forces in CAR to “take all necessary measures to support MISCA in the exercise of its mandate.” If the UN approves the French intervention, Belgium may be called on to support Paris in mid-January.

The Belgian army has several reasons to want to participate in this operation. Minister De Crem has always defended a higher level of operational engagement: yesterday it was 1000 troops on average, it will be 600 in 2014, including a withdrawal from Afghanistan. Today, with 606 troops deployed – not counting those in the Defense department – Belgium seems to be at its limit, but that does not take into account the return of soldiers deployed in Lithuania (51) after the New Year, dozens of soldiers deployed in Congo and about a dozen deployed in Uganda and in the Horn of Africa.

Additionally, a possible C-130 mission in the CAR has several advantages. It’s an air mission, therefore relatively safe in comparison to ground deployment. It’s also one of Belgium’s areas of expertise, not in geographic terms but in terms of equipment. Short runway landings in dangerous areas are a specialty in which Belgian pilots are trained. It has become almost a “niche,” for an unintentional reason. The Transall C-160 heavy transports that are used by many European armies are at the end of their useful lives. That is France’s situation, and that is why France has called on its allies. Its Transalls are worn out. The new Airbus A-400 M is not engineered for these types of flights, and it needs a much longer landing strip than provided in the CAR. The Belgians, who still use C-130s, represent an important support structure for Paris.

ALAIN LALLEMAND

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