Game of Drones: U.S. military drones in the Sahara
Late in the morning of
October 4 last year, a convoy of Niger Armyuand American special forces
soldiers in eight vehicles left the
. As they
made their way between mud-brick houses with thatched roofs, they were attacked
from one side by dozens of militants, if not hundreds. Outnumbered and
outgunned, the Nigeriens and Americans fled, some on foot, running for cover
behind trees and clusters of millet, their boots caked in the light brown
earth. By the time the fighting was over, five Nigeriens and four
Americans were killed, their bodies left naked in the bush after the militants
took their uniforms. U.S. Special Operations forces have been in
least 2013 and are stationed around the country on forward operating bases with
elite Nigerien soldiers. What happened in Tongo Tongo is just a taste of
the potential friction and instability to come, because the pièce de
resistance of American military engagement in Niger is a $110 million
drone base the U.S. is building about
northeast of Niamey in Agadez, a city
that for centuries has served as a trade hub on the southern edge of the
Sahara Desert, not far from Mali, Algeria, Libya and Chad.
The base, scheduled for completion in late 2018, is technically the property of the Nigerien military, though it is paid for, built, and operated by US military. It is being constructed on land formerly used by Tuareg cattle-herders. So far, there is one large hangar, ostensibly where the drones could be housed, a runway under construction, and dozens of smaller structures where soldiers live and work. The air strip will be large enough for both C-17 transport planes and MQ-9 Reaper armed drones that it will be mainly used to surveil militants like Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, Al Mourabitoun, Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa, and local Islamic State affiliates including Boko Haram, which operate in border zones in neighboring countries. The U.S. currently flies drones out of an airport in Niamey , but those operations will be shifted to Agadez once the new base is completed.The base in Agadez is about 6 square kilometers, though most of the land is yet to be developed. The base is tucked away and hidden from Agadez first by the 8-to-10-foot wall that separates the city of 125,000 from the airport.Despite the total cost of $110 million for construction and roughly $15 million in operating costs per year, very little of that money will go to the local economy.
This base together with the base of Chabelley in Djibouti and the base of Arba Minch in Ethiopia, allow control of the center and north of the African continent almost in its entirety, giving the United States the virtual air control of strategic reconnaissance not only over the military installations of the terrorist groups but also allows a complete and exhaustive survey of the natural resources of that region of the planet.