The United States Defense Department has received permission from the government of Niger to operate armed drones in their country. The drones will be flown out of the Nigerien capital of Niamey. Pentagon officials confirm this is a significant expansion of the American military in Africa. The drone flights could start within days. Niger and the United States have entered into a memorandum of understanding. It was finalized this week. The memorandum describes how remotely piloted aircraft will initially be armed. This will be done at the Africa command, which is located at the air base in Niamey. Currently, drones are deployed there but aren’t armed.
According to the memorandum of understanding, the drones will eventually be located at a Nigerian air base in Agadez. American troops will also be deployed to this base. Pentagon officials have confirmed this new mission will result in a major increase in the number of American troops in Niger. There are currently 500 American troops stationed in Niamey. They will be relocated to the base in Agadez. The number of troops there is then expected to increase to 800. In an email response to the New York Times, the Defense Department stated the operation is part of a long-term partnership between Niger and the United States. It also supports the continuing effort to counter the violent extremism found in the area. Defense Department representatives stated the two countries will work together to keep any terrorist organization from having a safe haven in the area.
The United States has been working with the Nigerian government for two years to obtain permission to place bombs on their drones. These bombs are precision-guided and will work with a fleet of Reapers being flown out of Niamey. Having these drones available will increase the ability of the military to confront extremists in West Africa. This is a region that includes Chad, Mali as well as southern Libya, and Nigeria. The focus would be fight terrorist organizations associated with Boko Haram, Al Qaeda as well as the Islamic State.
Currently, the United States can reach different targets in Africa from its bases in southern Italy as well as from bases in Djibouti. Having drones in Niger will increase its ability to launch operations. A deployment to Niger is the second time the United States has had used armed drones stationed in Africa. There are drones stationed in Djibouti. They were used in Somalia and Yemen. These drones were used as part of 30 strikes against the Islamic State and Shabab. This is twice the number from the previous year. Army officials believe this new location will enable the United States to be more effective against the threats in the area. They also believe drone strikes need to be combined with a much broader approach to defeating the terrorist organizations.
State Department Concern
The State Department has made its concerns known about increasing the level of United States military personnel necessary to be in Niger. Government officials from Niger were initially reluctant to permit the drones. This is because it is such a big step to permit armed drone flights over their populated areas. The Defense Minister from France is trying to arm the surveillance drones they operate out of Niamey to support the thousands of French troops located in West Africa. The details of that are still being worked out.
This move follows Army Special Forces and Nigerian troops being ambushed on October 4, 2017. It occurred outside the village of Tongo Tongo. It caused a firefight that lasted for two hours. This resulted in four Nigerians, as well as four Americans, being killed. Six Nigerians and two Americans were also wounded.
Accidental Civilian Casualties
A State Department official stated there is concern that using armed drones could increase the risk of the United States causing accidental civilian casualties. Representatives from Somalia claim civilians from Somalia were recently killed in a joint raid by Somali troops and American military. The Africa Command disputes this claim and states troops from the United States had not killed anyone and those who died were enemy combatants.
An assessment of the situation was done by the Somali National Army and U.S. Special Operations Command Africa (SOCAF). They concluded the only casualties were those people who were members of the extremist Islamic group linked to Al Qaeda.