Signaling what will be a major uptick in US drone activity across western Africa, US African Command (AFRICOM) announced Friday its airbase Agadez, Niger has gone operational, not just flying surveillance drones as was originally expected, but also armed combat drones.
Flights from the base, called Air Base 201, began last week and the patrols are to aid US-Nigerien military patrols in rooting out regional ISIS militants and other Islamist factions which have been threatening the area. Specifically US officials say the armed drone program is badly needed due to prior ISIS ambushes on US-Nigerien troops.
The Air Force Times described on the biggest deadly such attack:
The move comes a little more than two years after four Army soldiers were killed on Oct. 4, 2017, in an attack on a joint U.S.-Nigerien military patrol by an ISIS offshoot known as Islamic State in the Greater Sahara.
The US Air Force, which has described the $110 million constructed airfield as among the harshest locations in the world from which the military operates, endured multiple delays in establishing the base given the difficult remote desert environment.
"I would say that the construction of Air Base 201 will go down as one of the most Herculean efforts in the history of the United States Air Force," Brig. Gen. Michael Rawls of the Air Force's 435th Air Expeditionary Wing in Africa described earlier this year.
The new airfield can reportedly allow surveillance and reconnaissance across the extensive Lake Chad Basin area, which includes Chad, Cameroon, Nigeria and Niger.
This will no doubt further commit the Pentagon to a long-term presence in Niger amid continued broader AFRICOM expansion.