The United States Air Force (USAF) has started limited flights from newly constructed facilities at Air Base 201 in Niger, which will later be used to carry out armed and unarmed unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) missions in the region.
The USAF said limited, visual flight rule (VFR), operations were authorised by the US Air Force and Nigerien Civil Aviation Authority (ANAC) from 1 August. These flights include USAF C-130 and other resupply missions into the base, with full flying operations scheduled to begin later this year.
VFR operations are conducted without instruments to assess an airfield before full flight operations begin, including UAV missions.
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.
“I’m proud of the tremendous work our Airmen accomplished in completing the largest ever Airmen-led construction project in Air Force history,” said General Jeff Harrigian, US Air Forces in Europe-Air Forces Africa commander. “Air Base 201 gives Niger and the US incredible capability in a challenging region of the world. This joint-use runway allows for a better response to regional security requirements and provides strategic access and flexibility. Our Airmen are creative, adaptive and capable of rapidly making decisions, and there is no better example of that than the airfield they built at Nigerien Air Base 201.”
Approval for the $110 million base, 2 200 acres in size, was given by the Nigerien government in 2014. Air Base 201 will host armed and unarmed MQ-9 Reaper UAVs for counterterrorism and surveillance strikes.
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 is already flying armed UAVs out of Air Base 101 in Niamey, 800 km southwest of the base, with flights starting from January. Once Base 201 is completed, several hundred American troops and MQ-9 Reapers will be stationed there. 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.
“The location of Air Base 201 in Agadez will improve our collective ability to facilitate intelligence sharing that better supports Niger and other regional partner nations, including Cameroon, Chad, Mali, and Nigeria in addressing shared security threats. It will also improve our collective capability to respond to regional security issues,” US Africa Command said last year.