French Airpower and Counterinsurgency

October 21, 2015
French Airpower and Counterinsurgency
Christopher Griffin
Christopher Griffin Non-Resident Fellow Strategic Studies and Counterinsurgency

French aircraft struck a Daesh camp in Deir Ezzor in Syria on 27 September. French President François Hollande stated that ‘six aircraft were used, including five Rafales’, and that ‘the camp was totally destroyed’. Despite having undertaken 200 airstrikes since 2014 in Iraq, France had chosen not to get militarily involved in Syria up to that point, leaving it instead to the USA, who assembled a different coalition than that used in Iraq.[1] The French government, however, began to indicate its readiness to intervene in Syria with reconnaissance flights that started on 8 September. Hollande cited the organization of terrorist attacks in France from Syria, holding Daesh responsible, while at the same time ruling out sending ground troops. The French airstrikes in Syria were quickly forgotten with the start of the Russian intervention.

French Rafales aircraft bombed a training camp in Rakka on 8 October, and the French Navy also sent a frigate to reinforce the American carrier group in the Persian Gulf. The French readiness to rely on strategic airstrikes to attempt to solve the problem of Daesh is somewhat surprising. The French armed forces since 2008 have extensively criticized the American tendency in Afghanistan to rely on standoff artillery and airstrikes to the detriment of close combat tactics favored by the French military.[2] In Mali, French forces did not hesitate to use their artillery and strike aircraft, but in close support missions coordinated with troops on the ground.[3] The French criticism of American strategic air and artillery attacks in Afghanistan might seem contradictory given French strategic strikes in Iraq and Syria. To understand how France understands the use of airpower in counterinsurgency operations (COIN), it is necessary to look at the French experience since World War I. A larger historical view of the use of French airpower shows that French armed forces prefer the tactical use of the air arm in counterinsurgency warfare, and that the current conflict is in fact an anomaly in that it may be the first time that France has used strategic airpower alone in COIN or counterterrorism. 

French Airpower in COIN – World War I to Algeria

Scholars have paid a great deal of attention to the tactical innovations of Marshals Joseph-Simon Gallieni and Hubert Lyautey in French colonial wars at the end of the nineteenth century, which emphasized the need for political solutions based on the support of the local populations.[4] After the lessons learned about the use of airpower during World War I, however, French officers saw applications in the colonies for the use of the mobile firepower that airplanes provided. The more extensive use of aircraft in colonial warfare was part of a larger move toward the application of heavy firepower in the empires, which has been extensively examined in the British context.[5] Lyautey, while initially interested in airpower’s potential in the colonies during his command in Morocco, became more skeptical after the Great War, arguing in particular that bombing was ‘indiscriminate’.[6] His colleagues in the French Army did not have the same opinion. Marshal Philippe Pétain was sent to Morocco in 1925 to replace Lyautey as France was having trouble in the Rif War. Pétain quickly introduced heavy firepower into the colony, including bombers, which were used to put down the rebellion.[7] World War I convinced an entire generation of French (and British) officers that heavy artillery and airpower used tactically to support ground troops was the solution to many problems of colonial warfare.

The French Air Force played a relatively minor role in World War II. The newly reconstituted Free French Air Force in 1943 wanted to participate in the strategic bombing offensive, but its involvement was limited, mainly to attacks on German air defenses and V-1 construction sites. Its primary role was tactical support for operations.[8]

After 1945, not wanting to lock its Air Force into limited tactical missions in the planning for a potential war against the Soviet Union, France began to reorganize its air arm for multiple contingencies.[9] The wars of decolonization, however, would almost immediately return the air force to its primarily tactical role.[10]

Indochina was a testing ground for new airpower methods by France, particularly airborne operations.  General Paul Ely was the last commander of French forces in Indochina, and in his 1955 after-action report, he described a French Air Force that had adapted to COIN. Ely stated that ‘there was no aerial enemy in this war. Air superiority was guaranteed … all possibilities were open’.[11] Between 1946 and 1951, French airborne troops went from a few hundred to 10,639 men.[12] What has been largely overlooked by historians interested in the developments in air mobility in Indochina, however, is that the performance of the airborne units was mediocre, according to senior commanders, even late in the war.[13] Other than for troop transport, airpower was used rarely in the war until 1951, which corresponded, unfortunately for the French Air Force, with an increase in Hanoi’s anti-aircraft capabilities. Bomber squadrons were created in 1951, and French forces did not hesitate to use napalm and target villages.[14]

After the French defeat in Indochina, the Air Force continued to adapt to COIN in Algeria, though it was still used nearly exclusively in tactical combat air support and transport. French tactical airpower was at its height during the conflict, though, as compared to later wars, it was used in a much more indiscriminate fashion against insurgents and civilians alike.[15] The French Army used both helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft to support operations, in which the Air Force was clearly subordinate to Army commanders.[16] The French Army also created no-go ‘forbidden zones’ that covered wide swaths of Algeria. Anyone present in those zones was deemed to be an insurgent and attacked by mobile ground forces supported extensively by combat aircraft.[17] The extensive use of the Air Force in a tactical role was seen by the Army as extremely useful in a mobile COIN environment in difficult terrain, but later generations of officers would come to understand that many of the lessons of airpower in Algeria were no longer applicable after decolonization.

French Airpower after Algeria

Even before the end of the war in Algeria, de Gaulle was already adjusting the balance of forces between the combat arms. On 10 June 1958, General Ely, in consultation with de Gaulle, called for a major reduction in the number of soldiers in the French Army to break its power and remove any autonomous policymaking capacity after the coup d’état in May. De Gaulle at the same time made the French Air Force responsible for the emerging nuclear deterrence mission.[18]

The newfound preeminence of the French Air Force often made it the combat arm of choice for French operations after Algeria. In Africa, French airpower was used frequently after the mid-1970s, usually in tactical missions to support African allied ground troops. The French Air Force retained a large number of aircraft and helicopters dedicated to the close air support mission.[19] The integration of the Jaguar strike aircraft into the French arsenal in 1973 in particular, proved useful in stopping Polisario attacks on Mauritania from Western Sahara in 1977 and 1978.[20] French aircraft were also useful in degrading Libyan ground and air power to halt Qaddafi’s repeated invasions of Chad in the 1980s. The problem with this analysis, however, which is true also in France’s air campaign in 2011 in Libya, is that it was largely the use of airpower against conventional opponents (or non-state actors organized conventionally) to defeat conventional attacks on allies, which was not COIN. In Libya in 2011, France and the UK supported the insurgents with airpower against a state, which is the opposite of COIN.

The two major uses of French airpower in COIN campaigns since Algeria were in Afghanistan and in Mali. Afghanistan posed a number of problems for the French Air Forces, as the rules of engagement were heavily restricted to prevent civilian casualties on the ground. The character of the Afghan conflict, however, without clearly defined fronts, called for the extensive use of airpower. In French strategic analyses that address the Afghan conflict, this contradiction is evident, and one can sense the frustration of what were seen as often dangerous limitations set by the U.S. military on the use of tactical air support. French forces also pointed out problems which were not overcome, including getting close air support quickly to aid troops caught by ambushes, and avoiding friendly casualties in difficult terrain where troops were closely engaged with the Taliban. The so-called ‘Afghan Model’, which argued for fewer soldiers on the ground, due to the supposed decisive power of effective strategic and tactical precision airstrikes, only really applies to the first few months of the Afghanistan War.[21]

As mentioned above, Mali was something of a return for the French Air Force to its traditional mission, which is tactically supporting French soldiers in close combat operations. There was extensive use of both combat helicopters and the newest French strike aircraft in cooperation with heavy artillery to destroy terrorist positions in difficult terrain. The mobility of airpower assets as demonstrated in Indochina and Algeria, coupled with newer precision strike technologies, gave the French a significant battlefield advantage in a COIN campaign in a very large theater of operations.


This brief historical survey, which is by no means exhaustive, demonstrates that French strategic airstrikes in Iraq and Syria in 2014 and 2015 are not consistent with the use of the air arm in French military history. Airpower has been used strategically by France in campaigns against adversaries organized in a more conventional fashion, such as in Chad, in Kosovo and in Libya in 2011. It is relatively unusual for France to use airpower when it has no soldiers in the ground.

France has considerable experience in fighting insurgents and terrorists from the air, but mostly in a close air support mission. In analyzing whether a COIN air campaign against Daesh in Iraq and Syria will be effective, it will be important to realize that the most important French successes in this type of operations were largely in the field of tactical airpower, not strategic strikes. To achieve better battlefield effectiveness in COIN air campaigns in the future, the French military should look to the reasons for the success of airpower in Mali, which have not been extensively studied, and are based on much previous experience of tactical air-ground cooperation in the COIN conflicts of the 20th century. The presence of French ground troops was of course ruled out in the Syrian conflict, but the French military (and coalition partners) need to think about if sufficient operational modifications can be made to the traditional tactical mission of airpower in COIN to achieve victory with strategic strikes alone.

[1] It remains unclear why France chose to intervene in Iraq and not in Syria in 2014. An article from the French version of the Huffington Post in September provided some hypotheses, including that the American military took responsibility for the mission, unlike in Libya in 2011.

[2] The French military issued a new COIN doctrine manual in 2013, which dispensed with a great deal of the population-centered lessons from American thinking. For example, it states that the objective of ‘winning hearts and minds of the population seems unrealistic and not adapted to the situation’. (p. 32, para. 310).

[3] Général Bernard Barrera, Opération Serval : notes de guerre, Mali 2013 (Paris: Editions du Seuil, 2015), 189-193, 233.

[4] Douglas Porch, ‘Bugeaud, Gallieni, Lyautey: The Development of French Colonial Warfare’, in Peter Paret, ed., Makers of Modern Strategy from Machiavelli to the Nuclear Age (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986), 376-407.

[5] Michael Paris, ‘Air Power and Imperial Defence, 1880-1919’, Journal of Contemporary History 24:2 (April 1989), 209-225.

[6] Letter to the Haut-Commissaire at Oujda, ‘Prescriptions sur le rôle de l’aviation’, January 16, 1919, in Pierre Lyautey, ed., Lyautey l’Africain : textes et lettres du Maréchal Lyautey présentés par Pierre Lyautey IV : 1919-1925 (Paris: Plon, 1957), 78.

[7] Moshe Gershovich, ‘The Ait Ya’qub Incident and the Crisis of French Military Policy in Morocco’, Journal of Military History 62:1 (January 1998), 66.

[8] It is difficult to find information on French involvement in the strategic bombing campaign. See André Martel, ‘La Libération et La Victoire : “Quoi ? Les Français aussi !”’, in André Corvisier, ed., Histoire Militaire de la France IV : de 1940 à nos jours (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1994), 183-186.

[9] Martel, ‘Guerre froide et décolonisation : Berlin, Hanoï, Alger’, in Corvisier, 273-274.

[10] North Africa in the 1950s was intended as a base for French strategic bombers to attack the Soviet Union as well as provide tactical support for operations in Europe, but the infrastructure was never sufficient. Général A. Guillaume, ‘L’importance stratégique de l’Afrique du Nord’, Revue de Défense nationale (November 1953), 424-425.

[11] Général Paul Ely, Les Enseignements de la Guerre d’Indochine : Tome I, ed. Ivan Cadeau (Paris: Service Historique de la Défense,  2011), 191.

[12] Ibid, 192.

[13] Ibid, 196-197.

[14] Napalm was first used in 1950, one of ‘best munitions’, according to General Ely. Ibid, 176-177.

[15] The example most often cited is the French bombing of the Tunisian village of Sakiet Sidi Youssef on 8 February 1958 in retaliation for cross-border raids.

[16] The best book in English remains Charles R. Shrader, The First Helicopter War: Logistics and Mobility in Algeria, 1954-1962 (Westport: Praeger, 1999).

[17] Guy Pervillé, Atlas de la guerre d’Algérie (Paris: Editions Autrement, 2003), 36-37.

[18] Maurice Faivre, Le Général Paul Ely et la politique de defense (1956-1961) (Paris: Economica, 1998), 35-36.

[19] Ibid, 127.

[20] André Foures, Au-delà du sanctuaire (Paris : Economica, 1986), 132-133.

[21] The Afghan Model had already shown its limits early on in the battles of Tora Bora and Anaconda.