Date: Sunday, 30 June 2019
After five years of negotiations, followed by years of construction delays, the new American airbase in Niger has been completed. Called Airbase 201, it cost $110 million and is one of the most expensive U.S. Air Force foreign airbase construction projects even undertaken. The main purpose of the base is to improve surveillance and intel collection about Islamic terrorists in the region. That will be accomplished by basing UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles) there along with some manned aircraft. Construction began in 2016 and was supposed to be completed by 2017. The project took two years longer than expected because the location, Agadez, is on the southern edge of the Sahara desert and that led to unexpected complications because of the harsh climate.
Some 600 American military personnel will be stationed at Airbase 201, most of them air force and including air traffic controllers and security personnel. Flight operations will begin later in 2019 because details of how the UAVs will operate in an area where there is some commercial air traffic are still not completely worked out. That’s another unexpected delay. Then there are the additional security. That last item became more of a concern since 2016 as there are now two ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) “provinces” operating in this part of Africa. In western Niger and neighboring Mali there is ISGS (Islamic State in Greater Sahara) that is currently active in more of Mali and much of Niger. The other, larger, ISIL group is ISWAP (Islamic State West Africa Province), this ISIL group is one of two factions of Nigerian Islamic terror group Boko Haram. ISWAP personnel are mostly in northeastern Nigeria as well as smaller numbers in Chad, Niger and northern Cameroon. ISGS and ISWAP do not appear to work together except when it comes to Internet media activities, where ISWAP will mention ISGS accomplishments. It is now believed both these ISIL groups will see Airbase 201 as a valuable target to go after.
Agadez is 730 kilometers northeast of the Niger capital (Niamey). Niger agreed to allow the construction of Airbase 201 in 2014, a year after American UAVs began operation from a Niger military base next to the Niamey airport. The Agadez base had to be built largely from scratch because, unlike Niamey, Agadez does not have a large airport or much in the way of support for lots of aircraft operations. Agadez is closer to Chad, southern Libya and Nigeria, where American aerial surveillance is more in demand by the local governments. Airbase 201 will also support armed UAVs and Niger wants some say in when and where those armed UAV operations will take place. Niger became more interested in having armed UAV operations available after a late 2017 clash in Niger left four American Special Forces operators and five Niger trainees dead when their 35 man training operation was ambushed by over fifty ISGS gunmen in western Niger. Aerial surveillance over that training mission would have spotted the ISGS force. The U.S. will continue to supply intelligence obtained by the Airbase 201-based UAVs with Niger and other nations in the area that have intelligence sharing agreements.
Details of that intel sharing are also not completed.
The Agadez operation will be the second American airbase in Africa and, like the first one, will be shared with France and other allies. The first U.S. base was established in 2002 when the United States began sharing an old French base in Djibouti, which is the northwestern neighbor of Somalia. Since then Djibouti has hosted the one official U.S. military base (Camp Lemonnier) in Africa. France and the United States SOCOM (Special Operations Command) have had special operations forces (commandos and special aircraft) outside the Djibouti capital since 2002. Some of these manned flights will also use Airbase 201. In 2014 the U.S. signed another ten year lease for that base. U.S. forces in Djibouti were increased after resistance collapsed in Iraq in 2008 and the base became the command post for a network of American operations through the region. Most of the effort is directed at monitoring what is going on in the region (mainly Somalia and Yemen but also Eritrea, Nigeria, Mali, Libya, Kenya, and Ethiopia) not at interfering with the local terrorists. Not much, anyway. The Djibouti base also supports operations throughout the Sahel (the semi-desert strip between the North African desert and the Central African jungles, which stretches from the Atlantic to Somalia).
By 2013 Camp Lemonnier and nearby airfields supported fourteen large UAVs (ten MQ-9 Reapers and four MQ-1 Predators), six manned U-28 aircraft and eight F-15E fighter bombers. The two seat F-15Es carried surveillance gear and could fly long distances, find a target and destroy it with a GPS or laser guided weapon. In addition U.S. Navy ships off the African coast sometimes had MQ-8 and ScanEagle UAVs operated from ships to search inland. The U.S. Navy also had two P-3C maritime patrol aircraft stationed near Camp Lemonnier. More aircraft arrived after 2014 when ISIL and al Qaeda became more active in North Africa and Yemen. Since 2013 Djibouti has agreed to provide (for a fee) base facilities for Japan and China. Japan is there mainly to help with the anti-piracy operations while China is there because the Chinese Navy wanted a base in the region. In addition, Chinese have established hundreds of new businesses in Africa and hundreds of thousands of Chinese have moved to Africa to make it all work.
Meanwhile, the Americans were becoming more active south of the Sahel. In 2013 the United States established a small intelligence base outside Niamey. As the eastern neighbor of Mali and just south of Algeria and Libya the Niger base was closer to the recent (since 2012) emergence of Islamic terrorist activity in northern Mali and southern Libya. These two areas were becoming a base area for al Qaeda and other Islamic terrorist groups. Initially, only a hundred Americans are stationed at the Niamey airport base, most of them to maintain several American UAVs that flew surveillance missions over Niger, Mali and southern Libya. These UAVs did not carry missiles. There are also some intelligence operatives at the Niger base. The growth of ISIL activity in Niger made Niger eager to have more aerial surveillance over their vast, thinly populated areas in the north and east of the country.
Thanks to satellite communications, this original Niamey airport operation had hundreds of other people involved in what it is doing, almost as if they were there. This is called “reachback.” For example, most of the people actually operating the UAVs are back in the United States. UAVs are very labor intensive, as you need a pilot and one or more sensor operators for something like the Predator or Reaper. In addition, you need shifts of operators because these air force UAVs typically stay in the air for 12-36 hours at a time. So having the operators back in the United States greatly reduces the number of people you have overseas. The UAV maintenance crews get the aircraft ready for takeoff and on the airstrip. But after that, the crew back in the U.S. can take over. Reachback also works for intelligence work. The intel personnel in Niger are mainly there to work with local counterparts and provide them with intel collected by the UAVs and other sources. The Niger intel group are in constant contact with intel personnel in AFRICOM headquarters (in Germany, which is the same time zone) and those in the United States (like the Pentagon and SOCOM, both six hours away on the east coast of North America). The growing use of reachback since 2003 has occurred because the concept works. It enables a lot of troops to operate from a foreign base without being there. Because of this, fewer Americans need to be at Airbase 201 but those Americans are now a prime target for Islamic terrorists in the region.
Normally African nations are not keen to host major foreign military bases. But security and financial needs will change that in some cases. Thus Djibouti welcomed French military assistance first when Somali seemed to be getting increasingly chaotic and Eritrea and Ethiopia were again talking of war. The Americans not only brought more security but also a bigger budget for the construction of facilities that would, eventually, be taken over by the government at little or no cost. In the meantime, there were rent payments, jobs for locals and spending by the troops. Niger noted that and invited the small intel operation first and is now ready to deal with the Agadez base, which will involve over $50 million in construction of airbase, roads and buildings. Plus all the other benefits the Djiboutis have received.