The U.S. military is reportedly deploying more armed MQ-9 Reaper drones to Niger at the request of the local government, even as the U.S. special forces troop presence is scaled back.
The drones will hunt jihadis in southwestern Niger, including militants loyal to the Islamic State, al-Qaeda, and Boko Haram.
Foreign Policy on Tuesday called it a “significant escalation of the Defense Department’s little-noticed war against violent extremists in Africa.” The war received plenty of sudden notice from the American public last fall when four U.S. soldiers were killed in an ambush in Niger.
Many Americans were surprised to discover hundreds of American military personnel are deployed in Niger, primarily in support and training roles.
According to Foreign Policy, the Nigerien government has requested more assistance from American drones. Local defense officials are worried about militants crossing the border from Libya, which has become a seemingly unending nightmare of clashing jihadi groups and warlords.
A new $100 million facility for launching and servicing the drones is under construction at the Nigerien military base in Agadez, which is much closer to the troubled region than the current drone base in the capital city of Niamey. Agadez will also be able to dispatch drones into Libya as needed.
The Agadez drone base has been described as the largest construction project ever undertaken by the U.S. Air Force. An August 2018 article at The Intercept argued that the true cost of the base will be closer to double the $100 million estimate, plus exorbitant operating expenses, in part due to the remote location of the base and the harsh Sahara Desert environment.
The Intercept also observed that the sign over the entryway to the base reads, “Welcome to Agadez: Niger’s Best Kept Secret,” which is an amusing boast given the enormous size of the American installation.
Foreign Policy noted that Agadez will become only the second base in Africa to deploy armed American drones, the other being located in Djibouti to service targets in Yemen and Somalia. Armed drones active in Libya are flown out of Sicily, while unarmed surveillance drones have been launched from Tunisia and Cameroon.
Even as the drones move in, several reports indicate the Defense Department is pulling American troops out of Africa. The combat effectiveness of armed drones against jihadis in Africa will probably be impressive, but there are concerns the troop drawdown will lower the morale of allied African governments.
On the other hand, the switch to drones may reduce local apprehension over the increasingly strong presence of Western troops.