26 months in the sand: Reflections of Mali
Flt Lt Tim Griffith has just returned from Mali, where he was a Chinook pilot, here’s his reflection of his tour.
Two years ago, aircrew from RAF Odiham flew three Chinook helicopters across the Niger-Mali border in North-West of Africa. The ‘Mighty Wokka’ had joined Operation BARKHANE, the French operation to support the governments of the Sahel region in their fight against a variety of violent extremist organisations (VEOs).
Over the subsequent 26 months, members of both 18(B) and its sister, 27 Sqn, rotated through Mali in support of this effort. They have been underpinned by essential support elements from within, and beyond, RAF Odiham, under the banner of Operation NEWCOMBE.
Extremists are increasingly willing to undertake bold, complex attacks on International and Malian forces, utilising a combination of car bombs, IEDs and armed fighters to create mass casualties.
Many of these VEOs maintain close links with Al Qaeda or the Islamic State and all use extreme violence to undermine the rule of law and further their ambitions. It is a complicated and deteriorating picture, and this has formed the backdrop to Chinook operations in Mali.
The Chinook is central to supporting this effort through the provision of long-range heavy lift capability to the French arsenal. The commitment itself was a result of the political agreement between then British Prime Minister Theresa May and French President, Emanuel Macron, at Sandhurst in January 2018.
On Op NEWCOMBE, three Chinooks are tasked with providing the full breadth of logistical support, in a non-combat role, to French and broader G5 Sahel nations fighting in the Sahel region. It is composed of a combination of smaller units and Individual Augmentees drawn from all three British Services, and whilst RAF Odiham personnel form the majority, they work alongside colleagues across the wider military.
“The success of Op NEWCOMBE (CH47), and thus our overall contribution to Op BARKHANE, can be attributed directly to the close cooperation and teamwork of all UK personnel deployed and the immediate and lasting bonds made with our French colleagues in the Groupement Tactique du Désert — Aérocombat (GTD-A).”
— Lt Col Steve Brining, the National Component Commander on Op NEWCOMBE
The French approach is to establish Forward Operating Bases (FOBs) in crucial areas around the region and use these as staging posts from which to launch patrols. The impact has been undeniably positive, with decreasing violence in areas where French forces dominate the ground. The RAF’s Chinooks have made this mission easier to achieve.
Op NEWCOMBE is ground-breaking in that it is a truly joint Anglo-French mission, with UK Chinooks fully incorporated into the French Aviation Battlegroup. They are tasked by the French and routinely operate alongside French Helicopters in mixed formations. The men and women of 1310 Flt work alongside, plan, brief and eat with their French counterparts, integrating to an extent not seen in other recent conflicts.
Whilst violent extremists are an ever-present threat, they have not been the only challenge for 18(B) Sqn. The nature of the sorties, coupled with the Malian climate and distances covered pushes the Chinook to the edge its performance envelope; the temperature rarely falls below 30°C, and sometimes climbs as high as 50°C, reducing the power available to aircrews.
The Force’s engineering team have been the true heroes of the operation, working day and night in the most disagreeable of conditions, enduring up to 90% humidity and 38°C in the hangar, to keep the Chinooks flying. Nearly every engineer at Odiham has been involved in Op NEWCOMBE, with a sizeable portion on their fourth rotation through the Sahel.
“It has been an honour to Command 1310 Flt. The mighty Chinook’s unique capabilities have once again been demonstrated in this most challenging environment.”
— Sqn Ldr Fitzpatrick
The rapid pace of life at RAF Odiham never stops, with engineers, aircrew and support staff returning to the UK for a just a short period of rest before preparing to head back out of the door in support of other commitments, both within the UK and around the globe. They can look back on their time in Mali with pride.
Engineers and support teams have worked relentlessly in unpleasant conditions and aircrew have flown the Chinook to the limit of its performance in support of our French allies. Whilst much has been achieved, there is more to do, and 27 Sqn are once again ready to continue the good work for the next nine-month rotation.