The U.S. airbase in Agadez, Niger, which cost $110 million, has already begun carrying out missions in the region. Its primary tasks will be reconnaissance and surveillance flights, though it could potentially be used for carrying out strikes by unmanned aerial vehicles.
Completed earlier this year, Air Base 201 (as it is officially called) was finished after several delays. Its construction represents a technical milestone as it is built in the midst of the Sahara Desert.
This is not, however, the first time that U.S. forces will be flying drones from the country. The U.S. military has previously flown drones from Niger’s capital, Niamey. The new base does however provide extended reach, particularly towards countries such as Chad, Nigeria, and Cameroon.
In recent years the region has been witness to high levels of terrorism with al-Qaeda offshoots and ISIS-affiliated groups having been particularly active. Complicating matters, the collapse of the Libyan government in 2011 has resulted in weapons proliferating to as far south as the Central African Republic and Mali.
Niger has not been immune to this turbulence either.
This regional instability led the U.S. to step up its involvement in the country–an involvement that dates back to 2001, though lately it has become increasingly deeper. But this has come with American casualties: In October 2017, two American special forces soldiers and one support soldier were killed in an ISIS ambush in the country.
The completion and use of Air Base 201 considerably expands U.S. presence in Africa.
Africa is somewhat unique in that it has relatively little American military presence compared to Europe, the Middle East, or East Asia. The only sizeable and permanent contingent is the American military base in Djibouti, which is located in the Horn of Africa. Until now, the U.S. military presence in Africa has largely been limited to direct military operations, such as these in Libya and Somalia.
Intelligence gathered by surveillance drones flying from the base has the potential of aiding on the ground counterterrorism efforts, particularly by countries that otherwise would have lacked the resources needed.
Additionally, U.S. efforts in the Sahara and the Sahel can be expected to produce further cooperation with France. France has traditionally played a dominant role both militarily and economically in the area sometimes referred to as Françafrique. And overall countries such as Niger have gained lately increased notice from European countries due to their position as transit points for sub-Saharan migrants seeking to cross the Mediterranean.
Overall, though the airbase may produce useful support for tactical operations, but long term solutions will be needed as these countries continue to suffer from chronic issues such as weak economies, fragile governments, and regional destabilisation.