The United States Air Force (USAF) has begun intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance operations from its newly constructed Air Base 201 in Agadez, Niger.
US Africa Command on 1 November said ISR operations are “in support of our partner forces and international efforts to counter violent extremist organizations in the region.” It added that “this effort is in partnership with the Nigerien Government and reflects the commitment and desires of African partners as well as common interests for stability and security in the region.”
From 1 August, the USAF started limited flights from newly constructed facilities at Air Base 201 ahead of using the base for armed and unarmed unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) missions in the region.
Limited, visual flight rule (VFR), operations were authorised by the US Air Force and Nigerien Civil Aviation Authority (ANAC) from 1 August. These flights included USAF C-130 and other resupply missions into the base.
USAF Airmen recently completed several major construction projects at Air Base 201 outside Agadez and these covered the 1 900 metre long runway and other infrastructure. The 50 metre wide runway will be able to accommodate large aircraft like the C-17 Globemaster III.
“The US military is at Nigerien Air Base 201 at the request of the Government of Niger,” said US Army General Stephen Townsend, Commander, U.S. Africa Command. “We are working with our African and international partners to counter security threats in West Africa. The construction of this base demonstrates our investment in our African partners and mutual security interests in the region.”
US Africa Command said it has an agreement with the Government of Niger for the use of armed and unarmed air assets in its airspace “that improve our combined ability to respond to threats and other security issues in the region. These assets are used towards achieving the mutual goals of the United States and our West African partners. Partnership is required to counter violent extremism in West Africa and prevent its spread.”
“Flexible and diverse postures across the African continent enable us to facilitate operational needs and better support our partners in the region,” explained US Air Force General Jeff Harrigian, Commander, US Air Forces in Europe and Air Forces Africa. “The location in Agadez was selected in conjunction with Niger due to the geographic and strategic flexibility it offers to regional security efforts.”
The new runway at Nigerien Air Base 201 is a joint-use runway that is suitable for both US and Nigerien aircraft, allowing for enhanced response to regional requirements and better protection of Niger’s borders, Africom said.
Approval for the $110 million base, 2 200 acres in size, was given by the Nigerien government in 2014. Air Base 201 is believed to host armed and unarmed MQ-9 Reaper UAVs for counterterrorism and surveillance strikes, although the US military declined to say what ISR aircraft are currently operating from the base.
Construction began around 2015, with the pace accelerating from 2016 onwards. In 2017 camp facilities expanded, and hangars were erected. However, due to its relative remoteness, sparse infrastructure and difficult conditions (hot, dry and dusty terrain), the project fell a year behind schedule and $22 million over budget.
The United States flies armed UAVs out of Air Base 101 in Niamey, 800 km southwest of the base, with flights starting from January this year. The United States also flies armed UAVs out of Djibouti. These have been used to strike targets in Yemen, Somalia and Libya. Unarmed surveillance UAVs are flown from Tunisia and Cameroon and other aircraft are deployed in areas like Kenya.
Agadez was chosen for its central location and relative isolation (for security reasons). It will eventually be handed over to the Nigerien military.
Africom also hopes to complete Camp Baledogle in Somalia this year. The runways of the former Soviet-built air base are due to be repaired by the end of the year. The runway will be 3 000 metres long and 40 metres wide, allowing it to support almost all aircraft in the US Air Force inventory. At present the runway is being used for limited operations.
In September, Baledogle was attacked by two suicide car bombs, but they were detonated outside the base’s gate. The al Qaeda-linked group al Shabaab said it carried out the attack. Baledogle is about 100 km west of Mogadishu. Insurgents attacked the base in February using mortars, but caused no casualties. The base houses US special forces and is used to carry out UAV missions.