Ghana's small unit making a huge impact
Erwan de Cherisey takes a detailed look at the Ghana Air Force operation in Mali.
The Ghana Air Force (GAF) has been deployed in Mali for more than two years as part of the United Nations multidimensional integrated stabilisation mission (MINUSMA).
It provides MINUSMA’s only permanent military fixed-wing air support capability with a single Airbus Defense & Space C295 twin-engine transport from the Ghana Aviation Unit (GHAV).
Ghana has a long history of participating in UN peacekeeping missions. The GAF has had a helicopter unit deployed in Ivory Coast as part of the UN operation in Côte d’Ivoire (UNOCI) for several years.
The deployment of the C295 to Mali took place in the aftermath of a failed attempt by the UN to establish a permanent transport unit in Entebbe, Uganda, to support any of its operations in Africa. The idea was that a pair of leased C295s would have been operated and maintained by GAF personnel as part of an agreement between the UN and Accra. Financial technicalities eventually prevailed and the plan was discarded.
Nevertheless, the benefits offered by the C295 in a UN operation context were not lost on Ghana. Thus, when MINUSMA was established in 2013, the country began considering the possibility of strengthening its presence in Mali, which already included an Army engineering unit initially deployed as part of MINUSMA’s forerunner, the African-led international support mission to Mali (AFISMA).
From the outset, Ghana decided its contribution to MINUSMA would centre around a force multiplier and not merely additional troops. As Group Captain Frank Hanson, GHAV’s first commander, explained in a 2015 interview: “The idea was for Ghana to move from being a troop contributing country (TCC) and turn into a capability contributing country (CCC), whose contribution to the mission would bring significant added value.”
Thus, the decision was taken to send an aviation unit to MINUSMA after air support was found to be an area where additional capabilities were critically needed.
A single C295 transport aircraft, one of only two such planes then in service with the GAF’s N°2 Squadron, was deployed to Bamako on September 23, 2014, a week after the GHAV’s main body had itself arrived in Mali.
Hanson headed the deployment of GHAV 1 and handed over to his successor, Group Captain Reginald Yaw Cole, on May 1, 2015. GHAV 1 concluded its deployment in September 2015, having flown a total of more than 873 hours in 420 sorties, to be relieved by GHAV 2 in October the same year.
GHAV 2, still under the command of Cole, deployed to Bamako in October 2015 and flew until April 2016, a total of over 577 hours in 285 sorties. That same month, flying activities stopped as negotiations over the renovation of the unit’s letter of assist (LOA) and its redeployment to Gao, 320km east-southeast of Timbuktu, began between Ghana and MINUSMA.
Despite MINUSMA’s urgent need for transport aircraft, throughout the following months, as negotiations dragged on, UN regulations forced GHAV 2’s C295 to remain grounded in Bamako. Eventually, after the UN finally agreed to provide GHAV with the necessary support and servicing facilities for its aircraft in Gao, the unit, by then GHAV 3, but still under the command of Cole, relocated there.
The C295 arrived on October 25, 2016 and conducted its first operational sortie from its new base on October 27.
“Our mission in Mali is to provide air transport services in support of the MINUSMA mandate,” explained Cole. “We are to conduct tactical airlift, administrative and logistic support flights, medical/casualty evacuations, humanitarian aid distribution, troop insertion and extraction, quick reaction force (QRF) response, search & rescue (SAR), air reconnaissance, etc.”
He added that GHAV could also be called upon to carry out inter-mission cooperation duties, being temporarily redeployed by the UN to another mission if the latter had an outstanding air support requirement.
To carry out such assignments, Cole can rely on the 54 men under his command, who hail from the GAF’s different branches. These comprise 10 officers and 44 other ranks. All personnel undertook a six-week pre-deployment training course in Ghana, which comprised cultural awareness classes, background information on the conflict in Mali, weapons training, etc.
The aircraft currently deployed in Mali is C295 GHF 552 (UNO 064P), which hails from the GAF’s Communication Squadron and is normally based at Air Force Base Accra.
Seven of GHAV’s officers, including Cole, are pilots and operate in crews of three instead of two, in order to mitigate the extended duration of most missions and prevent excessive crew fatigue.
Since 2014, GHAV has flown all over Mali, to and from Bamako, Mopti, Gao, Timbuktu, Tessalit and Kidal (although the airport there has been closed since April 2016). While Bamako and Mopti both have air traffic control (ATC), none of the other destinations do, which means the crew must rely on the aircraft’s instruments alone to carry out their approach.
Sorties routinely include six to eight hours of flight as the aircraft flies to multiple destinations on the same day. Thanks to its excellent fuel efficiency, the C295 can fly to Kidal or Tessalit and back to Bamako without refuelling.
Flying conditions in Mali are often extreme, with high temperatures reducing payload, no navigation aides and fast-changing weather. Sandstorms are a frequent occurrence in the north of the country and can drastically reduce visibility. Indeed, in some instances, GHAV’s C295 has landed in Kidal with less than 2,000 meters visibility.
When flying in the troop/passenger transport role, the C295 can accommodate up to 50 people, while in a cargo configuration it can load a maximum of four NATO-standard pallets. It can also be flown with a mixed load of cargo and passengers or, in a medevac role with several stretchers and medical personnel, a configuration which has been used in several instances, including in support of the Malian military.
The maintenance team comprises 22 officers and NCOs. Daily servicing is performed for each flight day. As a result of dust and sand, engine compressors are inspected and washed every two weeks or 50 hours, while in Ghana this is done only every 130 hours. The lack of proper servicing facilities, particularly hangars, means maintenance has to be completed in the open, which is another difficulty as it exposes the personnel and equipment to the sun, the heat and the dust.
Every three months, the aircraft returns to Ghana for major servicing, which includes 300 hours/eight months A checks.
The GHAV has performed outstandingly since its debut in Mali in 2014. The unit’s continued presence in the country is a testament to the political commitment of Accra in supporting stabilisation in Mali.
All MINUSMA military personnel, including force commander Major General Lollesgaard, who have flown with the GHAV, prize the unit’s high standard of professionalism and the exceptional availability and flexibility of its C295.
The Ghanaians have also made a name for themselves by carrying out dangerous assignments, such as flying into Kidal, despite a confirmed man portable air defence system (MANPADS) threat.
It is in no small part because of the operational successes of the GHAV that the Malian Government has decided to order a C295 for its air force.
Since its redeployment to Gao, the GHAV has flown less than 80 hours.