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The runway is ready, but flights still on hold at new US drone site in Niger

Airmen assigned to the 31st Expeditionary Squadron use a steamroller to level asphalt while paving a flight line on Nigerien Air Base 201, Niger, in December 2018. The U.S. military?s new base is scheduled to open this summer.

DANIEL ASSELTA/U.S. AIR FORCE

By JOHN VANDIVER | STARS AND STRIPES Published: May 22, 2019

STUTTGART, Germany — The U.S. military has finally completed runway work at a new air base in Agadez, Niger, but Air Force officials said Wednesday it will still be several months before flight operations can begin at what is anticipated to be a major intelligence gathering hub in western Africa.

The $110 million initiative — one of the largest Air Force-managed building project in history — is almost two years behind schedule. Operations were initially planned to begin in late 2017, but the effort ran into repeated delays as a result of complications connected to working in the austere southern Sahara desert.

The bulk of the construction is now complete at the site referred to as Air Base 201. However, the U.S. needs to sort out various operational procures with the government before flying can start, the military said.

“We are working closely with the Government of Niger and Department of State to assist the Nigeriens with the challenges of air traffic control and airfield security, “ Lt. Col Dustin Hart, a spokesman for U.S. Air Forces in Europe-Air Forces Africa, said in a statement.

Hart said the hope is that flights will commence in late summer or early fall.

For years, the U.S. military has operated drones out of Niger’s capital of Niamey. But a decision was made to set up a new site to the north in Agadez, which would extend the drones’ reach for more effective surveillance and reconnaissance missions in the volatile Lake Chad Basin area as well as Libya.

There are a range of militant groups that operate in the region, but the Islamic State in West Africa has emerged as a top U.S. Africa Command concern around the borders of Niger, Nigeria and Chad.

Technically, the base in Agadez is Nigerien, but the U.S. has exclusive rights to about 20 percent of the compound’s 9-mile perimeter. Military officials have declined to say how many drones or what other types of aircraft will be based at the facility.

While the mission at Agadez will focus on surveillance, Niger’s government granted the U.S. authority in 2018 to carry out armed drone flights in the country. That host nation approval was granted soon after the October 2017 ambush in Niger that left four U.S. soldiers dead.

When the Agadez mission finally begins, about 600 airman are expected to be deployed to the site on six-month tours, military officials have said.

“The U.S. Air Force is committed to supporting Niger in the opening of the new runway ... and responding to regional security issues,” Hart said in a statement.

vandiver.john@stripes.com
Twitter: @john_vandiver

 

Airmen from the 31st Expeditionary Squadron use a steamroller to level asphalt while paving a flight line on Nigerien Air Base 201, Niger, in December 2018. The U.S. military?s new base is scheduled to open this summer.
DANIEL ASSELTA/U.S. AIR FORCE

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