The Associated Press recently reported that the United States and Niger have come into agreement to setup a United States drone base in order to provide intelligence and surveillance capabilities against Al-Qaeda in Northern Africa. The location of the proposed base is unknown (most likely undetermined).
Plans are already in place for conventional and special operations ground forces to operate there in the future as both the U.S. and Niger have signed a “status of forces” agreement that has been months in the making. A status of force agreement, or SOFA, is an agreement between a host country and a foreign nation stationing military forces in the country. SOFAs include the rights and privileges of foreign personnel, and the number of personnel and even aircraft numbers.
Currently, Niger has only offered to let the United States operate unarmed drones for the purpose of surveillance and reconnaissance and currently no agreement has been given to allow the use of armed drones out of Niger. Most of you readers are probably saying that the U.S. should be allowed to have armed drones in the area in order to target al-Qaeda and similar forces. Some probably think that the U.S. would operate these hunter-killers regardless of permission.
I decided to research the feasibility of using armed drones out of Niger and created a nice little graphic for all you readers. The United States dominantly uses two types of armed UAVs, the MQ-1 Predator and the MQ-9 Reaper. These two drones, operated by the CIA and the Air Force, have decimated al-Qaeda’s ranks in Afghanistan and Pakistan’s tribal regions. But could they be used in Mali, Algeria, Libya, and Northern Chad where al-Qaeda in Islamic Maghreb calls home? In my research I found out that the Predator has a range of 775 miles and the Reaper has a range of 1,150 miles.
The image below shows an imaginary U.S. drone base marked by a black dot (the actual drone base could be closer to the Mali border in the West or further North on the border with Algeria. The blue circle indicates the maximum distance a MQ-9 Reaper can travel before turning back to base (half of 1,150 is 575 miles) and the maximum distance the Predator can travel before turning back is a mere 387 miles. As you can tell from the map, regardless of where the staging point is, any armed drones in Niger would be handicapped by a very short reach.
In terms of surveillance purposes, the United States utilizes the MQ-4 Global Hawk that has a total range of 8,700 miles that can easily cover all of Northern Africa including parts of Southern Europe and as far South as the Congo. Other surveillance drones in our arsenal include the RQ-170 Sentinel (the same bird that crashed into Iran in late 2011) which can cover most of Northern Africa as well.
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