The U.S. military will begin flying armed drones out of a remote base in Niger in the coming months, marking a significant escalation of the Defense Departmentâ€™s little-noticed war against violent extremists in Africa.
The MQ-9 Reapers will operate from new facilities the U.S. Air Force is building at an existing Nigerien base in Agadez for nearly $100 million. Until recently, the drones have been based in Nigerâ€™s capital and used solely to collect intelligence on militant groups operating in the region.
But last November, following an attack that killed five Nigerien and four American troops near the village of Tongo Tongo, the government of Niger requested that the United States begin deploying armed drones against jihadi groups.
The Tongo Tongo ambush spotlighted a policy issue that draws little public attention in the United Statesâ€”the ongoing war in Africaâ€™s Sahel region against militant groups emboldened by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
It also brought new scrutiny to the Agadez project, offering a window into the U.S. militaryâ€™s quiet buildup on the continent.
â€śI suspect it is part of this concern around the terrorist organizations in the Sahel region that give no sign of being defeated anytime soon,â€ť said Joshua Meservey, a senior policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation, citing groups such as the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, Boko Haram, and others.
â€śThey have carried out a number of attacks that have been high profile and very concerning,â€ť he said.
Much of the violence is centered in Nigerâ€™s volatile southwest region. One of the poorest nations in Africa, Niger has all the ingredients for instability and violence: economic woes, an illicit drug and weapons trade, human trafficking, and borders with volatile nations, particularly Libya and Mali.
The French military is also heavily involved there, deploying thousands of troops across West Africa to fight Islamist militants.
The Pentagon insists that U.S. troops do not have a direct combat mission in Niger. Its 800 personnel there include special operations troops who train Nigerien forces to conduct counterterrorism raids and defend themselves against ambushes.
But the deaths of four U.S. soldiers in Tongo Tongo have raised concerns about mission creep. Gen. Thomas D. Waldhauser, the head of U.S. Africa Command, said this year that the soldiers were playing a backup role for Nigerien forces on a mission against jihadis and did not intend to get involved in direct combat.
â€śThe direct cause of the enemy attack in Tongo Tongo is that the enemy achieved tactical surprise there, and our forces were outnumbered approximately 3 to 1,â€ť said Maj. Gen. Roger L. Cloutier Jr., who was then Africomâ€™s chief of staff and now commands U.S. Army Africa. â€śThere was some processes at all levels of the chain of command that need to be improved.â€ť
Agadez will be only the second place the United States deploys armed drones in Africa. Drones stationed in Djibouti are used for airstrikes in Yemen and Somalia, while drones used against targets in Libya are flown from Sicily. (The United States reportedly began flying armed drones out of Air Base 101 in Niamey in January, but these reports are unconfirmed.)
The United States also flies unarmed surveillance drones from bases in Tunisia and Cameroon.
Meservey said the deployment of armed drones in Agadez would â€śgive a little bit more teeth to the ongoing operations.â€ť
The relocation of the MQ-9 Reapers from Air Base 101 to the new facilities at Agadez has been planned since 2014. Construction is scheduled to be completed by the end of this year.
The buildup coincides with calls within the Pentagon to draw down troops in the region. Following the Tongo Tongo ambush, Waldhauser proposed reassigning hundreds of U.S. troops on the continent and winding down special operations missions there. More recently, the New York Times reported that the Defense Department plans to accelerate that drawdown.
â€śThat has caused the Pentagon to rethink â€¦ the special operatorsâ€™ posture in that region,â€ť Meservey said. â€śDrones have a smaller footprint, they are easier to run and deploy, and they donâ€™t [attract as much] attention.â€ť
Maj. Karl Wiest, a spokesman for Africom, told Foreign Policy that the Pentagon is reviewing operations around the globe in accordance with the new National Defense Strategyâ€™s pivot away from counterterrorism operations and toward coping with broad threats posed by Russia and China. But he said the Pentagon has not yet directed any combatant command to adjust forces.
The key question will be whether the armed drones help the United States sustain gains made against militants as it draws down its troop presenceâ€”without upsetting the delicate political balance in the region, said Alice Hunt Friend, a senior fellow in the international security program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
â€śI think the government-to-government relationship with Niger for the moment will hold steady, but from a community relations perspective and from a public relations perspective â€¦ African communities are extremely sensitive to U.S. presence,â€ť Friend said. â€śDrones could certainly upset that latent anxiety.â€ť