The US Air Force is building a base for armed drones in Niger in order to combat militant groups in Africa’s vast Sahel region.
On April 16, the US and Niger flag were raised side by side at the base camp for air forces and other personnel supporting the construction of Niger Air Base 201 in Agadez, Niger, Military.com reported.
The drone base, costing $110 million, features a runway that is 6,800 feet long and 150 feet wide as it not only needs to accommodate drones such as the MQ-9 Reaper, but also the much heavier C-17 cargo planes. The MQ-9 Reaper is one of the most advanced drones available to the US Air Force. Niger Air Base 201 is expected to be functional early next year.
The drones at the base are expected to target several different al-Qaida and Islamic State group-affiliated factions in countries throughout the Sahel, a sprawling region south of the Sahara, including the area around Lake Chad, where the Nigeria’s Boko Haram insurgency has spread.
The intelligence gathered by the drones can be used by Niger and other U.S. allies for combating extremists, said Commander Brad Harbaugh, who is in charge of the new base.
The US-Africa Command spokeswoman Samantha Reho also welcomed the construction of the military facility:
“The location in Agadez will improve U.S. Africa Command’s capability to facilitate intelligence-sharing that better supports Niger and other partner nations, such as Nigeria, Chad, Mali and other neighbors in the region and will improve our capability to respond to regional security issues.”
However, there are some more incredulous opinion over the US aims in the Sahel region. Ibrahim Maiga, a Mali-based researcher for the Institute for Security Studies, pointed that more information needs to be known about the U.S. military presence in the region.
“The U.S. military footprint in the Sahel is difficult to grasp, just as it is not easy to assess its effectiveness,” he said according to AP. “There isn’t nearly enough information in the public space on this presence.”
E.J. Hogendoorn, the director of the International Crisis Group’s deputy Africa program in Washington said that the deployment may increase local hostility.
“The deployment of armed drones is not going to make a strategic difference and may even increase local hostility to the U.S. and the central government in distant Niamey”, the New York Times quoted Hogendoorn as saying.
The civic leader Nouhou Mahamadou also expressed concerns, according to the New York Times:
“The presence of foreign bases in general and American in particular is a serious surrender of our sovereignty and a serious attack on the morale of the Nigerien military.”