US Air Force criticised over construction of Niger air base


The US military’s Inspector General has criticised flaws in the construction process of the US Air Force’s Air Base 201 in Niger, with a new report saying safety standards may have been compromised, amongst other issues.

The US Department of Defence Inspector General report entitled ‘Evaluation of Niger Air Base 201 Military Construction’ was released in redacted form on 31 March. Its aim “was to determine whether the US Air Force effectively planned, designed, and constructed Air Base 201 in Niger to provide airfield and base support infrastructure in support of US Africa Command (US Africom) operations.”

The US Air Force began operates from Air Base 201 in Agadez, Niger, from 1 August 2019. Approval for the $110 million base, 2 200 acres in size, was given by the Nigerien government in 2014. 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.

Air Base 201 hosts armed and unarmed MQ-9 Reaper UAVs for counterterrorism and surveillance strikes as well as C-130 logistics flights. The runways can handle aircraft as large as C-17 Globemaster III strategic transports.

The new Department of Defence report said “US Africom and the Air Force did not effectively plan, design, and construct Air Base 201 in Niger to provide airfield and base support infrastructure in support of US Africom operations.”

The report identified several problems, including the Air Force building runway shoulders without congressional authorization when it submitted a form to Congress that excluded runway shoulders in the project scope. US Air Forces Africa “significantly underestimated the project cost, which created risk that the Air Force would not complete the Milcon [military construction] project.”

The Air Force bypassed congressional notification when it split the construction requirement for ISR (intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) operations into six O&M (operations and maintenance) projects totalling $5.4 million. “Because each portion of the project was under $2 million, the Air Force was permitted to use O&M appropriation.”

“The Air Force potentially violated the Antideficiency Act when it acquired 12 permanent guard towers costing approximately $3.7 million, using Procurement funds instead of MILCON funds, which required Air Force approval and congressional notification. In addition, the Air Force constructed foundations meant for temporary guard towers that could potentially be unusable because the permanent guard towers required larger foundations,” the report said.

“US Africom and the Air Force did not perform complete site surveys to gather information needed for design and construction of the airfield. Specifically, the Air Force did not conduct complete soil sampling and topographic analysis, which created airfield pavement compaction and drainage problems. The Air Force also experienced logistical problems such as material and equipment shortages during construction because the site survey did not identify sources of construction materials.”

Damningly, the report found “The Air Force did not construct Air Base 201 infrastructure to meet safety, security, and other technical requirements established in DoD, Air Force, and US Africom directives.”

“These problems occurred because US Africom and the Air Force did not adequately oversee and coordinate with stakeholders on the delivery of Air Base 201. As a result, the airfield and base camp needed to support the US Africom ISR mission was delayed by almost 3 years from the original planned date of completion. In addition, the problems that we identified relating to the aircraft rescue and firefighting facility…and airfield lights could lead to increased risk in safety and security.

“To accept the risk associated with the lack of infrastructure, the Air Force approved temporary waivers in June 2019 to allow…ISR operations at Air Base 201. However, operating without the infrastructure to support…ISR increases the safety risk for personnel operating at Air Base 201.”

In response to the report’s findings, both the US Africom Chief of Staff, responding for US Africom, and the Air Forces Africa Commander disagreed with the overall finding, stating that “US Africom and the Air Force accomplished the construction of an ISR and C-17 capable airfield in an operationally challenging environment with changing requirements during the construction period.” The Air Forces Africa Commander disagreed that there was lack of oversight and coordination in the planning, design, and construction of Air Base 201.