Don’t the French Have Their Own Planes?

The U.S. might lend some tankers and cargo aircraft to the French for their battle in Mali. They're gonna need the help.

The French have a tiny fleet of KC-135 tankers, and without them cannot project military force. Boykov /"

The Washington Post reports this morning that the United States is considering whether to provide military cargo and transport aircraft, as well as aerial refueling tankers, to the French military, which is sending hundreds more troops to Mali in a battle with militants linked to Al-Qaeda.

This raises a basic question: Don’t the French have enough aircraft of their own?

Let’s take a look.
The French Air Force has:
  • 14 Boeing KC 135 tankers. This is the workhorse tanker for the American military and an essential requirement for projecting global force. But this is not a large number.
  • 20 Airtech CN-235 cargo planes. These are medium-range aircraft.
  • 14 Lockheed C-130 Hercules. Long-range.
  • 41 Transall C-160 transport aircraft.
The French also have a tiny fleet of tankers and cargo planes outfitted for communications duty that they use for their strategic nuclear program. So presumably those are off-limits.
All told, then, there are 14 tankers and 75 cargo and transport aircraft in the French order of battle. That’s apparently not enough for the 2,500 troops and their equipment that France plans to put into Mali.
“Like many NATO countries, [France has] always relied on the US for much of their lift and tanking needs,” says Richard Aboulafia, a top aviation analyst at the Teal Group (who graciously provided the above figures). He notes that the French have made buying a new fleet of cargo planes, the A400M, a priority. Designed by Airbus, it’s a new generation tactical transport that could replace the C-130 and C-160.
So yes. The French do depend on us to get their forces into battle. U.S. officials insist that our assistance would end there. We’re already providing intelligence and reconnaissance  but there are no plans to commit U.S. troops or other forces.
PS–Max Fisher at the Post has this helpful primer if you don’t know the difference between Mali and Bali.