Tuesday, 16 August 2022

Russia’s African Offensive: Russia Builds Up Malian Air Force

By Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans
Mali has been in a near constant state of conflict since 2012, when the Tuareg rebellion prompted an Islamist insurgent advance that soon threatened to put the whole country under Al-Qaeda control. The French military intervened in early 2013 in order to halt their advance towards the capital Bamako and to bring back northern Mali back under government control. The French Army, with the support of Malian forces, quickly reversed the enemy's gains and secured much of the country with the exception of the Kidal region, to which Al-Qaeda (and later Islamic State) retreated. In recent years, Al-Qaeda and Islamic State have attempted to further expand their areas of operation by carrying out numerous attacks on Malian and U.N. forces, which remain deployed to Mali. The primary objective of U.N. forces is to combat the extremist groups, cut off their supply routes and prevent them from creating safe havens to which they can retreat training security forces in the region to handle these threats in the future.
When faced with the 2012 uprising in northern Mali, the Armée de l'air du Mali proved entirely incapable of hindering enemy advances or supporting friendly forces. Undoubtedly due to the influence of foreign forces deployed to Mali, the Malian Air Force afterwards began to take a more realistic approach to the security issues the country faces and swiftly decommissioned most of its remaining assets, including its MiG-21 fighter aircraft and S-125 surface-to-air missiles (SAMs). [1] The Malian Air Force has since been rebuilt from the ground up, acquiring four A-29B Super Tucanos from Brazil in 2015 (delivered in 2018) and four Mi-35M attack helicopters from Russia (delivered in 2017 and 2021). In 2019 Mali took delivery of a Cessna 208 configured for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) donated by the EU. [2] This aircraft is equipped with a FLIR turret. Together with three Mi-24D attack helicopters, two H215 Super Puma transport helicopters and a single C-295W transport aircraft, these airframes formed the nucleus of the Malian Air Force. The resulting force, while small, was among the most modern and capable in the region.
Though the A-29B can be equipped with a wide range of precision-guided munitions, no such weaponry was acquired by Mali. Instead, the three remaining aircraft (A29B 'TZ-04C' crashed in 2020) are armed with gun pods, unguided rockets and dumb bombs. [3] The A-29B can also be equipped with a FLIR turret under its fuselage, but it is thought that these were not supplied to Mali after the United States proved unwilling to arrange their delivery. [4] Presumably spurred by a lack of options to increase the effectiveness of its A29B Super Tucanos, Mali is believed to have eyed the acquisition of unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs) that can be armed with precision-guided munitions (PGMs) from either Türkiye or China. Negotiations appeared to have been still ongoing when in May 2021 Colonel Assimi Goïta seized power in the country's third military coup d'état in ten years, whose rule has so far been marked by a futher deterioration of ties with Western countries in favour of strengthening ties with Russia. 

One of Mali's A-29B Super Tucanos.

The seizure of power by Assimi Goïta was almost immediately followed by the acquisition and donation of additional military hardware from Russia. The Malian Air Force in particular was to benefit from this thawing of relations, with two Mi-24P attack helicopters arriving in addition to four Mi-171Shs that were delivered to Mali in December 2021 under a contract signed a year earlier. [5] In December 2021 Russia's Wagner PMC also deployed to Mali officially to train security forces, bringing with them Orlan-10 reconnaissance UAVs and air defence systems. [6] In addition to training local security forces, Wagner PMC has so far been implicated in staging a mass grave nearby a former French Army base in Mali to frame France, and in the Moura Massacre, in which some 300 Malian civilians were killed. [7] [8]

In August 2022, January and March 2023 the Malian Air Force was further strengthened by two Su-25 close air support aircraft (one of which subsequently crashed on the 4th of October), 15 L-39C armed jet trainers, two Mi-24P attack helicopters and three Mi-8T transport helicopter from Russia and one additional C-295W transport aircraft from Spain. The delivery of the Su-25 and L-39s comes as most neighbouring countries have acquired or are in the process of acquiring Bayraktar TB2 UCAVs from Türkiye, with Niger, Burkina Faso, Togo and Nigeria believed to be already operating the type or having ordered them. In December 2022 Mali followed suit by acquiring up to nine TB2s from Türkiye. [9] It's not unlikely that the Su-25(s) and Mi-24Ps will be operated by Wagner PMC until enough Malian pilots can be trained on the types. Nonetheless, rigorous pilot training is unlikely to make up for the L-39's lack of guided armament, advanced sighting systems and endurance required in the volatile Sahel Region. No matter the political clout Russia might still be able to buy with its dwindling stores of armament, its customers and recipients sooner or later wiill be forced to face the reality that Russian arms fail to attain the standards of 21st century warfare.

The Armée de l'air du Mali received a total of four Mi-35Ms in 2017 and 2021. These are the only assets in Malian service that are armed with guided weaponry (consisting of up to eight Ataka ATGMs) and one of just two types equipped with a FLIR turret.

This list aims to comprehensively catalogue assets in service with the Malian Air Force. Inoperational aircraft are not included in this list. This list is constantly updated as new acquisitions are announced or uncovered.

Operational Inventory Of The Armée De L'Air Du Mali


Unmanned Aerial Combat Vehicles (UCAVs) (9)


Attack Aircraft And Armed Jet Trainers (19)


Attack And Armed Transport Helicopters (15)


Transport And Utility Helicopters (5)

Trainer/Utility Aircraft (8)


Transport And Utility Aircraft (6)


VIP Aircraft (1)


Reconnaissance UAVs (Limited quantities)

Radars (1)

[6] Townsend: Russia Added to Instability in Africa With New Air Defenses in Mali https://www.airforcemag.com/townsend-russia-added-to-instability-in-africa-with-new-air-defenses-in-mali/ 
[8] ‘The Killings Didn’t Stop.’ In Mali, a Massacre With a Russian Footprint https://www.nytimes.com/2022/05/31/world/africa/mali-massacre-investigation.html
Special thanks to Thomas Nachtrab.