WASHINGTON — The Pentagon has begun operations from its newest air base, a hub in Niger for counter-terror drone operations in western and northern Africa.
The base is the largest Air Force civil engineer project in history. It was completed at Nigerien air base 201 in Agadez, which is central Niger’s largest city and is known as the gateway to the Sahara Desert. The base includes a new runway, drone facilities, intelligence operations and related infrastructure, Pentagon officials told TMN in earlier interviews.
The initial cost projection was $110 million, but congressional staffers said the classified numbers show higher expenses. U.S. jets and drones are being shifted from current locations in Niamey, Niger, to the new facility.
“This joint-use runway allows for a better response to regional security requirements and provides strategic access and flexibility,” Gen. Jeff Harrigian, commander of U.S. Air Forces in Europe-Air Forces Africa, said in a statement.
“The U.S. is committed to supporting Niger in the opening of the new runway at Nigerien Air Base 201 and responding to regional security issues,” he said.
The Niger government granted permission to the Pentagon to conduct armed drone flights over its territory in 2018, a few months after a fatal ambush of U.S. and Niger troops in October 2017.
Drone test missions began over the weekend, one Pentagon official told TMN Monday. Technically, the base opened for testing on Aug. 1 with cargo and other aircraft on resupply routes flying Visual Flight Rule (VFR) sorties. Those operations are conducted without instruments to test the airfield’s assets before full large-scale coordinated operations launch.
“U.S. Air Force Airmen have completed several major construction projects at Nigerien Air Base 201 to include the runway and significant portions of infrastructure,” U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) said Monday. “As with any new airfield, there are a series of assessments that must happen and procedures that must be developed before full flying operations can begin.”
Agadez will be the second largest U.S. military facility in Africa. The largest is Camp Lemmonier in Djibouti, on the horn of Africa. The new base appears to be part of a wider effort to add or expand U.S. facilities throughout Africa. For example, the Pentagon also is 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 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 under debate on Capitol Hill.
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, including ISIS, Boko Haram, Al Qaeda, Al Mourabitoun, and the Movement for Oneness, Pentagon officials have said.