In many modern peacekeeping contexts, missions cannot implement their mandates without an adequate provision of air assets. The need for such aircraft is particularly pronounced in Mali because of the size of the country, the frequent use of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) on key transport routes, severe annual floods, and the scarcity of decent roads.

Yet, the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) does not have the necessary military helicopters and Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) aircraft to achieve its objectives, including the increasingly important task of protecting civilians. While the Mission and the Security Council have taken notable steps to address the elevated threat to civilians in central Mali, Member States have yet to authorize any additional air assets or even fill existing gaps.

This month, the United Nations (UN) Secretary-General will issue a report on the situation in Mali. In the report, the Secretary-General will respond to the Security Council’s request to include “information on security challenges in Mali” and an update on “progress in mission operations.”1Resolution 2480, Paragraph 65 The Security Council, aware of MINUSMA’s limited capabilities, called on the Secretary-General to provide this information when the Council expanded the Mission’s strategic priorities last June. The information should inform Member States and their decisions about how to support the Mission. Therefore, it is imperative that the Secretary-General use the report as an opportunity to make clear to Council members that the Mission lacks critical resources to implement its mandated priorities, including the protection of civilians. Member States should support this request.

Escalation of violence in Mopti has aggravated longstanding shortfalls

MINUSMA has lacked certain air assets for a number of years, but security developments that began to emerge in 2015 have exacerbated the resource deficit. Three new factors have posed significant challenges to the Mission. First, the central region of Mopti – an area that was relatively stable and previously hosted a relatively small Mission presence – has become the most violence-afflicted part of Mali. Second, intercommunal violence is now a much more prominent feature of the security environment. Third, the rise in intercommunal violence means that civilians have increasingly become the primary targets and victims of attacks.

MINUSMA was originally mandated and designed to support the brokering and implementation of a peace process among parties in northern Mali. In June 2019, the Security Council sought to address these more recent challenges by adding a second strategic priority to MINUSMA’s mandate. It called on the Mission to help the Malian authorities protect civilians and reduce intercommunal violence in the center of the country. The elevation of the protection of civilians within the mandate was a welcome and overdue development, but it has to be matched with sufficient resources for the Mission to have any chance of succeeding.

That same month, MINUSMA established a separate operational zone – Sector Center – in Mopti to help address the increased threats to civilians. The rationale was that it would give Mission personnel in the region greater autonomy and speed up decision-making during crisis events. However, this strategy is clearly hamstrung if Sector Center still has to borrow air assets from the north to undertake its activities. For MINUSMA to have any hope of being able to intervene decisively and consistently to protect civilians in the Mopti region, Sector Center urgently requires its own military helicopters and ISR aircraft.  

The difficult terrain, poor roads, vast distances, and the widespread use of IEDs all mean that deploying ground forces is typically slow and cumbersome in central Mali. Air assets can enable MINUSMA to overcome these challenges. ISR aircraft allow the Mission to quickly verify reports of potential threats to civilians, monitor the movements of armed actors, and provide vital early warnings. Light attack helicopters are important because they are the quickest means of responding to and deterring imminent threats to civilian lives.2 While MINUSMA has been using remotely piloted ISR aircraft (drones) in its operations, all such aircraft are unarmed and thus unable to intervene to prevent an attack. By contrast, piloted ISR aircraft, which the Mission does not have at present, would have the capacity to fire warning shots. Meanwhile, military transport helicopters, unlike civilian transport helicopters, can carry armed personnel and can thus secure their own landing zone without any additional support from ground troops. Eliminating the need to deploy a ground team makes it much more feasible for the civilian and the military components of the Mission to travel to vulnerable areas in remote locations.

MINUSMA was supposed to have an air Quick Reaction Force stationed in central Mali, provided by Senegal, but following a tragic helicopter accident in March 2018, Senegal ended up deploying its contingent without a military helicopter. This gap has yet to be filled, leaving Sector Center with only two civilian helicopters – one for transportation, the other for casualty and medical evacuation (CASEVAC/MEDEVAC) purposes.

The lack of a military transport helicopter in Sector Center greatly constrains the Mission’s mobility because ground troops are frequently engaged in other operations and are unavailable to deploy to secure a landing zone. Unfortunately, the lack of military transport helicopters is not just a problem in Mopti. The longstanding lack of a military transport helicopter in the north-eastern region of Kidal renders it virtually impossible for the Mission to be mobile, which hampers its ability to protect civilians and engage with certain communities.

Moreover, the current lack of ISR aircraft and attack helicopters in Sector Center is compelling MINUSMA to draw on its air assets from the northern regions of Gao and Timbuktu. This can leave the Mission exposed in the north and only provides a temporary ability to identify, deter, or respond to potential threats to civilians in Mopti.

The expansion of MINUSMA’s strategic priorities – both thematically and geographically – requires Member States, the UN Secretary-General, and the UN Secretariat to fill these pre-existing capability gaps. The Secretary-General’s report should include detailed information on how these gaps are impacting the implementation of the mandate. Furthermore, the report should identify any additional requirements that are needed to inform decisions that Member State will make about MINUSMA’s future budget, mandate, and troop and police contributions.

The lack of military utility and attack helicopters and the scarcity of reliable ISR aircraft are significantly limiting MINUSMA’s capacity to anticipate attacks, engage with communities, and protect civilians. It is long overdue for Member States that care about protecting civilians to give MINUSMA what it needs to do its job. 

[1] Resolution 2480, Paragraph 65

[2] While MINUSMA has been using remotely piloted ISR aircraft (drones) in its operations, all such aircraft are unarmed and thus unable to intervene to prevent an attack. By contrast, piloted ISR aircraft, which the Mission does not have at present, would have the capacity to fire warning shots. 

Image courtesy of MINUSMA