Special Operations: Niger Calls For Armed UAVs

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December 21, 2017: In late 2017 the African nation of Niger gave American and French UAVs operating in or over Niger permission to carry use Hellfire missiles and other guided weapons inside Niger. For the most part this means U.S. and French MQ-9 Reaper UAVs operating from existing bases in Niger, Mali and Djibouti. France also operates manned combat aircraft from bases in Mali. EU peacekeepers also operate armed UAVs and helicopters in northern Mali. There are about 800 U.S. troops in neighboring Niger, most of them maintaining the aerial surveillance UAVs and other aircraft and helping train Niger troops. In early October four American Special Forces soldiers were killed when the training exercise (a large patrol) they were supervising clashed with Islamic terrorists operating near the Mali border. Four of the Niger troops were killed as well and even more American and Niger troops were wounded. This led Niger to allow armed UAVs to operate in Niger. In the past there had not been many situations calling for rapid response by armed aircraft. The early October incident made it clear the situation had changed. Before October it was possible to get foreign aircraft to come and carry out an air strike but the process took time. The Niger and American troops in October were not expecting to encounter such a large force of Islamic terrorists and have armed UAVs on call would have made a big difference.

This problem is largely the result of the success of French counter-terror operations in Mali and the defeat of Boko Haram in Nigeria. In both cases many of the surviving Islamic terrorists fled to Niger. This has been going on for some time and Niger has responded by allowing in more and more foreign assistance.

A year ago construction began on a new U.S. AFRICOM (Africa Command) base in Agadez, Niger, 730 kilometers northeast of the capital (Niamey). The U.S. had received permission for such a base in 2014, a year after American UAVs began operating from a Niger base next to the Niamey airport. The new Agadez base is built largely from scratch because, unlike Niamey, Agadez does not have a large airport or much in the way of support for lots of aircraft operations. Agadez is closer to Chad, southern Libya and Nigeria, where American aerial surveillance is more in demand by the local governments. The U.S. shares intelligence obtained by the Niger-based UAVs with Niger and other nations in the area that have intelligence sharing agreements as well as with France, which leads the counter-terrorism effort in the region.

Since 2013 France has operated a counter-terrorism operation effort throughout the Sahel (the semi-desert area south of the desert that stretches across northern Africa) using about 4,000 French troops based mainly in Mali. About the same time work began on the Agadez base France and other European nations helped form the G5 Sahel Joint Force consisting of 5,000 troops from Sahel nations Mali, Mauritania, Burkina Faso, Niger and Chad. The G5 force is mainly concerned with Islamic terror groups in the Sahel.

The idea for the G5 force has been around since 2015 but it was only by the end of 2016 that the countries involved agreed on the details. This included who would provide what in terms of the 5,000 soldiers and police needed and where they would be based. The G5 force will be stationed in three operational areas along with troops familiar with local conditions. Thus Sahel East would consist of troops from Chad and Niger. Sahel Central would be staffed by troops from Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso while Sahel West would mainly use troops from Mali and Mauritania. Parts of the G5 force will be operational by the end of 2017. That would enable France to shrink and eventually disband the force of 4,000 French troops it has deployed in the Sahel since 2013 and reduce the 13,000 strong UN peacekeeper force in Mali. The recent attack on American Special Forces troops in Niger was related to building the G5 Force.

Agadez is the second American airbase in Africa and, like the first one, shared with France and other allies. The first U.S. base was established in 2002 when the United States began sharing an old French base in Djibouti (the northwestern neighbor of Somalia). Since then Djibouti has hosted the one official U.S. military base (Camp Lemonnier) in Africa. France and the United States SOCOM (Special Operations Command) have had special operations forces (commandos and special aircraft) outside the Djibouti capital since 2002. In 2014 the U.S. signed another ten year lease for that base. At that point U.S. forces in Djibouti were monitoring what was going on in the region (mainly Somalia and Yemen but also Eritrea, Nigeria, Mali, Libya, Kenya, and Ethiopia) not at interfering with the local terrorists. Not much, anyway. The Djibouti base also supported operations throughout the Sahel and did this with a dozen or so MQ-9s plus manned aircraft like the U-28, F-15Es and various maritime surveillance aircraft in addition to a growing number of other foreign aircraft.

Since 2007 the United States has created and expanded AFRICOM to manage all the increasingly numerous American military operations in Africa. Since most of these operations involved special operations forces rather than conventional military forces AFRICOM released little detail on what was where. But in the last few years more of these details have emerged. As suspected most of the fifty or so AFRICOM “bases” are temporary agreements to use existing civilian or military airbases or other facilities in African nations, usually ones where AFRICOM is providing assistance in dealing with Islamic terrorist activity or other security threats. Most of these facilities are considered temporary or “contingent” (there are arrangements to use an airbase or port facility if needed and on short notice). The permanent operations are bases or FOS (Forward Operating Sites) while the temporary sites are CSLs (cooperative security locations) where American and local forces operate together or CLs (contingency locations) where arrangements have been made for use if needed. About half the AFRICOM sites are CLs and not used by Americans on a regular basis.

AFRICOM is similar in organization to other commands (CENTCOM, for the Middle East, and SOUTHCOM, for Latin America, etc). Before AFRICOM was created those operations were coordinated between two other commands (the one covering Europe and the one covering Latin America). The establishment of AFRICOM means more money for counter-terror operations in Africa and more long range projects. No country in Africa had sufficient infrastructure for AFRICOM headquarters and few wanted to risk the political blowback from hosting a major American military headquarters.

 


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