The challenges and opportunities of strategic airlift in Africa

Rwandan troops arrive on a U.S. Air Force C-130 cargo plane at El Fasher airport in Darfur, as part of an African Union peacekeeping effort in western Sudan, October 30, 2004, photo by Finbarr O'Reilly/Reuters

Rwandan troops arrive on a U.S. Air Force C-130 cargo plane at El Fasher airport in Darfur, October 30, 2004 as part of an expanded African Union peacekeeping effort in the violent region of western Sudan.

REUTERS/Finbarr O'Reilly FOR/SM

A complex mix of global and locally specific challenges make it difficult to coordinate the movement of troops and supplies around Africa. Researchers explored the potential for multinational and multi-modal solutions to optimise use of finite lift assets.

What is the issue?

Africa is of increasing strategic importance to militaries across Europe and North America and is home to a growing variety of national and multinational operations. At the same time, the geographical, political and practical constraints of operating in the African continent can hinder the efficient coordination of airlift and other logistic support in the region.

How did we help?

The Movement Coordination Centre Europe (MCCE) helps to coordinate use of the land, airlift and sealift assets of its 28 member nations, which include the UK, US, Canada, France and Germany. RAND Europe conducted a short scoping study to help the MCCE better understand the complex challenges of airlift in and around Africa, which can go beyond logistics support to traditional warfighting and include military exercises, peace support operations and humanitarian aid and disaster relief missions. Researchers drew insight from a literature review and expert interviews, exploring how use of multinational and multi-modal solutions could be used to optimise use of limited lift assets.

What did we find?

Key generic or global challenges

  • There are competing demands for the finite assets available to support lift and logistics missions in Africa, which rely on the goodwill of the MCCE’s member nations
  • Different member nations often have different approaches to, and capabilities for, burden sharing
  • Information sharing remains a key difficulty and source of tension, with a lack of transparency hindering coordination and long-term planning
  • Difficulties in planning beyond short-term requests for support inhibit the use of multi-modal solutions, which often have longer lead times than airlift
  • Gaps and overlaps between the responsibilities of multiple organisations makes it difficult to ensure a coherent, coordinated response

Key challenges specific to Africa

  • Though Africa is an increasingly important theatre of operations, many MCCE member nations have only a limited footprint and assets in the region
  • The African continent’s size and diverse topography, along with the austere conditions of many airfields and bases, pose challenges to military logistics
  • The complex geopolitical landscape and varying diplomatic relations with host nations affects the ability to secure clearances and permissions
  • While all MCCE member nations support the principles of pooling and sharing, competing national priorities can impede coordination
  • Enduring political and bureaucratic barriers to cooperation with UN missions, including those co-located at key hubs such as Gao in Mali, add further inefficiency

What are the implications?

A complex mix of global and geographically specific challenges inhibit the coordination and optimisation for airlift into the African theatre. The current approach to national and multinational delivery of movement and transport of troops and supplies in Africa is inadequate. This reflects a potentially damaging and seemingly increasing disconnect between the operational and financial pressures of operations in the African theatre and the relative lack of assets and low density of deployed forces.

This issue imposes both direct and indirect costs on the MCCE and its 28 member nations. The risk of a significant negative impact on operations or the viability and credibility of specific missions or actors is only likely to increase the longer that known issues go unresolved.

What can be done?

Priority areas for action

  • Promote greater sharing and transparency of information on national taskings in Africa, not least given the limited assets in the region
  • Enable increased interoperability by using common information technology platforms
  • Identify and promote pooling and sharing initiatives aligned to common missions to help secure sustained buy-in from a lead nation
  • Encourage member nations to leverage relationships with African host nations to benefit other partners

Potential long-term areas for action

  • Increasing the use of commercial freight forwarders for low-risk, low-urgency shipments could reduce pressure on airlift assets already in high demand
  • Recent or planned acquisitions of common air transport and air-to-air refuelling platforms provide an opportunity to use shared platforms as a basis for cooperation and capitalise on synergies
  • Expansion of the Air Transport, Air-to-Air Refuelling and Other Exchanges of Services (ATARES) tool — a cashless exchange of services between ‘requesting’ and ‘providing’ nations — could aid coordination between more actors