When France ended its combat involvement in Afghanistan at the end of 2012, few could have expected its armed forces to be almost immediately required to launch a major intervention in northern Africa.
Dubbed operation Serval and initiated in Mali on 11 January, the campaign was intended to halt and reverse the territorial advances being made by al-Qaeda and other Islamic militant groups towards the capital city, Bamako.
France's combat involvement started when military assets already based in N'Djamena in Chad as part of a long-term presence were sent forward to engage rebel forces. These included Dassault Mirage F1 reconnaissance and strike aircraft and Mirage 2000D bombers, supported by air force Boeing C-135FR tankers from the same base.
Within 48h, the intense activity was also to involve assets deployed from the French mainland, with the air force's Dassault Rafale community receiving little time to prepare for the complex and long-range sorties that would be asked of it.
Late on a Friday afternoon, as the hostilities started, a telephone call made to the office of Col Guillaume Letalenet, commander of the French air force's Mont-de-Marsan air base near Bordeaux, prompted a flurry of preparations among the personnel at the Rafale-equipped 2/30 "Normandie-Niemen" Sqn.
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