Intelligence: Long Eyes In Central Africa

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October 10, 2016: The United States is beginning construction of a new base in Agadez, Niger, 730 kilometers northeast of the capital (Niamey). The U.S. had received permission from Niger for such a base in 2014, a year after American UAVs began operation from a Niger military base next to the Niamey airport. The new Agadez base will be 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. Agadez will also apparently support armed UAVs as well. The U.S. will continue to supply intelligence obtained by the Niger-based UAVs with Niger and other nations in the area that have intelligence sharing agreements.

Agadez will be the second American airbase in Africa and, like the first one, will be 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, which is 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. U.S. forces in Djibouti were increased after resistance collapsed in Iraq in 2008 and the base became the command post for a network of American operations through the region. Most of the effort is directed at monitoring what is 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 supports operations throughout the Sahel (the semi-desert strip between the North African desert and the Central African jungles, which stretches from the Atlantic to Somalia).

By 2013 Camp Lemonnier and nearby airfields supported fourteen large UAVs (ten MQ-9 Reapers and four MQ-1 Predators), six manned U-28 aircraft and eight F-15E fighter bombers. The two seat F-15Es carried surveillance gear and could fly long distances, find a target and destroy it with a GPS or laser guided weapon. In addition U.S. Navy ships off the African coast sometimes had MQ-8 and ScanEagle UAVs operated from ships to search inland. The U.S. Navy also had two P-3C maritime patrol aircraft stationed near Camp Lemonnier. More aircraft arrived after 2014, when ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) and al Qaeda became more active in North Africa and Yemen.

In 2013 the United States established a small intelligence base outside Niamey. As the eastern neighbor of Mali and just south of Algeria and Libya the Niger base was closer to the recent (since 2012) emergence of Islamic terrorists activity in northern Mali and southern Libya. These two areas were becoming a base area for al Qaeda and other Islamic terrorist groups. Initially only a hundred Americans are stationed at the Niger base, most of them to maintain several American UAVs that flew surveillance missions over Niger, Mali and southern Libya. These UAVs did not carry missiles. There are also some intelligence operatives at the Niger base.

Thanks to satellite communications, this base had hundreds of other people involved in what it is doing, almost as if they were there. This is called “reachback.” For example, most of the people actually operating the UAVs are back in the United States. UAVs are very labor intensive, as you need a pilot and one or more sensor operators for something like the Predator or Reaper. In addition, you need shifts of operators because these air force UAVs typically stay in the air for 12-36 hours at a time. So having the operators back in the United States greatly reduces the number of people you have overseas. The UAV maintenance crews get the aircraft ready for take off and on the airstrip. But after that the crew back in the U.S. can take over. Reachback also works for intelligence work. The intel personnel in Niger are mainly there to work with local counterparts and provide them with intel collected by the UAVs and other sources. The Niger intel group are in constant contact with intel personnel in AFRICOM headquarters (in Germany, which is the same time zone) and those in the United States (like the Pentagon and SOCOM, both six hours away on the east coast of North America). The growing use of reachback over the last decade has occurred because the concept works. It enables a lot of troops to operate from a foreign base without being there.

Normally African nations are not keen to host major foreign military bases. But security and financial needs will change that in some cases. Thus Djibouti welcomed French military assistance first, when Somali seemed to be getting increasingly chaotic and Eritrea and Ethiopia were again talking of war. The Americans not only brought more security but also a bigger budget for the construction of facilities that would, eventually, be taken over by the government at little or no cost. In the meantime there were rent payments, jobs for locals and spending by the troops. Niger noted that and invited the small intel operation first and is now ready to deal with the Agadez base, which will involve over $50 million in construction of airbase, roads and buildings. Plus all the other benefits the Djiboutis have received.

 


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