Armed UN Little Bird Helicopters Are a Big Deal for Peacekeepers in Mali

With few other options, the UN has the tiny choppers on patrol, beating back militants, and even evacuating casualties.

MINUSMA

Nicknamed the Little Bird or Killer Egg, the fast and nimble MD500 series of helicopters has long proven its worth as a scout and light attack platform. Amid limited resources, a small team from El Salvador has been using the chopper's capabilities to fly armed patrols, provide overwatch for forces on the ground, and even evacuate casualties in support of United Nations mission in the West African country of Mali, which has become one of the most deadly peacekeeping efforts in the world.

Three MD500Es from the Air Force of El Salvador first touched down in the Malian city of Tumbuktu in May 2015, joining what is formally known as the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali, or by its French acronym MINUSMA. The contingent represents nearly half of the country’s entire fleet of MD500Es and is one of its military’s most significant international deployments since taking part in coalition operations during the occupation of Iraq from August 2003 through January 2009. It is the first time Salvadorian forces have operated independently of any direct support from any other country as part of a U.N. operation. 

The Little Birds in Mali are armed with a combination of a 7.62mm Minigun and a seven-shot 2.75-inch rocket pod. This is an older configuration that came with the helicopters when El Salvador acquired them in the 1980s. Crews also have AR-15/M16-type carbines and M60 machine guns for self-defense.

It is the same setup the U.S. Army’s elite 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment used on its initial AH-6Cs in the 1980s. That unit subsequently acquired more powerful versions of the helicopter and transitioned to a multi-purpose weapons mount, or “plank,” fitted in the aircraft’s main cabin.

It’s hard to overstate the importance of helicopters to MINUSMA’s operations as a whole. The Malian government has limited capacity to exert its authority across the country and outside population centers, terrorists, including those affiliated with Al Qaeda and ISIS, and organized crime groups can often operate with near impunity.

Helicopters provide essential mobility to monitor the situation and critical support to counter militant attacks in a country with very limited road infrastructure. With their high speed and weaponry, the Little Birds are an ideal choice for racing ahead of convoys to spot ambushes and rushing to help beat back an attack already in progress.

Forsvarsmakten

Though in no way built for the role, MINUSMA has pressed the choppers into the casualty evacuation role, as well. Their ability to get peacekeepers back to base for urgent medical care has apparently outweighed the fact that the aviations have to strap the wounded troops to the side of the helicopter, according to an official blog of the Swedish Armed Forces, or Forsvarsmakten, which also has personnel in Mali.  

“The cooperation with El Salvador has initially been very successful for both parties,” the Forsvarsmakten explained in the August 2015 post. “Hopefully the small attack helicopters become a common feature in the air above Swedish patrols.”

MINUSMA

A member of El Salvador's MINUSMA contingent pulls a 2.75-inch rocket from a protective tube before loading it onto an MD500E in Mali.

Unfortunately, as obviously important as the Little Birds are to MINUSMA’s mission, they also highlight the mission’s chronic shortage of resources and international support, despite being the third largest international peacekeeping mission in the world at present. The United Nation’s kicked off the effort in 2013, taking over for French and African forces, the latter of which had been operating under a mandate from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), a regional political and economic bloc. 

The two parties had intervened in Mali the year before, with American support, after an insurgency by ethnic Tuareg nomads and Islamists terrorists led to the collapse of the country’s government and the ouster of long-time president Amadou Toumani Touré. Those same groups continue to challenge the central authorities, and now an ISIS-linked group, Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS), has entered the mix. Experts and observers widely believe that ISGS was responsible for a deadly ambush on American troops in neighboring Niger in October 2017.

MINUSMA

Members of the Salvadorian contingent with MINUSMA clean their M60 machine guns at the UN base in Tumbuktu.

With no true final settlement to the conflict, the mission has become increasingly dangerous for the more than 13,000 peacekeepers spread across the country. There have been more than 130 significant attacks on United Nations personnel since 2013, 30 of which have occurred just in 2017. Nearly 150 members of the international force have died and over 500 have gotten wounded over the course of the mission, with more than half of the fatalities being the result of enemy action, an unusually high tally for a mission that does not involve direct combat with a hostile actors.

The situation has been hard even on developed countries who are contributing forces and equipment. In July 2017, a German Eurocopter Tiger attack helicopter crashed while supporting MINUSMA forces, an accident that killed both pilots. Critics had already complained about the high maintenance requirements to operate those choppers in Mali’s challenging environment, including high heat, sand, and dust, all of which can cause serious wear and tear on both fixed and rotary wing aircraft.

There are likely similar concerns the ability of the Salvadorian Little Birds to withstand the elements in the region, but we don’t know whether or not the environment in Mali has limited their availability. There have also been reports from Afghanistan describing serious operational issues with the more powerful 530F model in that country’s hot-and-high climate.

MINUSMA

A Salvadorian crew in Mali prepares for a night time mission.

In 2016, the U.S. Army did announce it would be purchasing spare parts of the MD500Es to support El Salvador's contribution to MINUSMA. It was not clear whether or not this was due to any unusually high maintenance requirements, though.

"The [pre-deployment] instruction was focused on how work is done in the desert and a  survival course for crew members in case of accidents," Colonel Juan Ricardo Palacios Garay, who acted as the chief of staff for the initial contingent bound for Mali, explained to Dialogo magazine in March 2015. "The maintenance specialists concentrated on what  preventive care the aircraft will need because of the sand, desert  elements, and the temperature."

However, we do know that the Little Birds lack an on board, turreted night vision or infrared camera, which can only limit their ability to patrol at night when militants are most active. At present, Salvadorian pilots do conduct night time missions, but only with night vision goggles.

The aircraft also do not have any type of precision munitions, such as laser-guided 70mm rockets, which would increase their effectiveness against insurgents who often ride in pickup trucks armed with heavy machine guns or other weapons. Such a capability would be useful for accurately taking out mortars and rocket launchers that fighters use to bombard United Nations camps.

MINUSMA

Air Force of El Salvador Major Maher Jurado in Mali, seen ahead of a mission with an M4-type carbine for self defense and helmet with night vision goggles.

MINUSMA has few other options though. The German Tigers, which ended up grounded for weeks after the accident, had replaced Dutch AH-64 Apaches. The Netherlands had withdrawn those helicopters in 2016 after suffering its own deadly crash the year before.

French Tigers are also in the country as part of that country’s separate regional counter-terrorism effort known as Operation Barkhane. Germany has a number of NH90 transport helicopters in place, as well, but plans to pull them out in 2018. Belgium has agreed to send two of its own examples to take over.

El Salvador’s mission was only supposed to last one year, Colonel Garay told Dialogo. “But El Salvador is prepared to stay in Mali for five years, depending on the UN mandate.”

It has now been more than two years and the Latin American country's commitment to the increasingly dangerous mission looks set to continue for the foreseeable future.

Contact the author: jtrevithickpr@gmail.com