WASHINGTON — The Pentagon is increasing air protection for forces in Niger and elsewhere in Africa, following a pattern it has established in Afghanistan and Iraq.
As part of that operation, one of the largest Air Force civil engineer projects is underway at Nigerien air base 201 in Agadez. The project includes construction of a new runway, drone facilities, intelligence operations and related infrastructure, Pentagon officials said in interviews.
The base will cost at least $110 million and is expected to be fully operational next year, with the first jets and drones shifted from current locations in Niamey, Niger, Pentagon officials said in interviews. The base’s location at the edge of the Sahara will give the U.S. a greater range of operations in many more west African and north African nations.
When completed, Agadez will be the second largest U.S. military facility in Africa. The largest is Camp Lemmonier in Djibouti, on the horn of Africa.
Agadez appears to be part of a wider effort to add or expand U.S. facilities throughout Africa. For example, the Pentagon is also expanding operations at the former Soviet air base Baledogle in Somalia – another key center for anti-terrorist operations. At different times, the Pentagon or officials with U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) have said there are about 46 U.S. bases on the continent.
AFRICOM conducts counter-terrorism operations across the continent under Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF), the congressional legislation passed after 9/11 that gave the military vast leeway in the global war on terror. A new AUMF is now being debated on the Capitol Hill.
Agadez came to wider public attention in the aftermath of last fall’s deadly ambush of U.S. and Niger troops near Tongo Tongo, Niger. The new base will be a headquarters for drone operations; drones that would have given the ambushed U.S. and Niger troops eyes-in-the-sky intelligence about the pending threat were sent away from where the troops were located.
Forces operating in Niger will see more Air Force air cover. The ground missions will be less, Pentagon officials told reporters during the briefing on the ambush earlier in May.
”I won’t go into details here, but we have increased the firepower, we’ve increased the ISR (drone) capacity and we’ve increased various response times,” said Marine Gen. Thomas Waldhauser, head of AFRICOM, said during the briefing.
A similar shift — from ground to air operations — has occurred in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The deadly October mission had initial drone coverage. Even so, prior to December U.S. drones were not permitted to be armed in Niger, even for defensive purposes.
U.S. Special Operations forces have been in Niger since at least 2013 and are strewn through the nation with Niger counterparts.
The Agadez site will be a focal point in efforts supporting African nations fighting a growing plethora of terrorist groups, such as ISIS, Boko Haram, Al Qaeda, Al Mourabitoun, and the Movement for Oneness, Pentagon officials said.
“The United States remains committed to deepening our development and security cooperation relationships throughout Africa, including by assisting our African partners in protecting their borders and fighting terrorism,” AFRICOM said in a statement.
About 600 airmen are expected to be deployed to Agadez on six-month tours once construction is finished, the Pentagon said.
“The majority of DoD personnel in Niger are supporting air operations at the airfield in Niamey, or at an airfield in Agadez,” Robert Karem, the assistant defense secretary for international security affairs, told reporters during the briefing. “The establishment of the Agadez airfield will help provide additional ISR coverage in the region.”