The U.S. military is building a $100 million base for drones and other aircraft in Agadez, Niger, that reportedly will cost another $30 million a year to operate.
The total price tag of a 10-year agreement to use the West African facility is projected to be about $280 million, according to The Intercept. The news site pointed out that the expense will likely be much greater because the Air Force's official estimate does not include the salaries of U.S. personnel deployed to the base or the cost of aircraft fuel.
Air Force spokesman Richard Komurek boasted that the base's construction is the biggest such project in the military branch's history. Previously, the record holder was the Phan Rang Air Base in South Vietnam, where almost 150 planes were stationed in 1969. The Niger facility is one of many ways the Pentagon has been enhancing its presence in Africa.
Officials initially claimed that the airfield would house only surveillance drones, and cost $50 million. The adjusted estimate partly reflects the military's decision to also base armed MQ-9 Reaper drones at the facility. The first flights are scheduled for next year.
“The challenge of building this enormous airfield in the middle of the desert has resulted in the delays that we’ve seen in getting this base operational,” Dan Gettinger, who heads the Center for the Study of the Drone at Bard College, told The Intercept.
“It’s probably one of the most remote U.S. military air bases ever built,” he said. “Most drone bases on the African continent are appendages to larger airports and airfields, but not Agadez. The existing infrastructure is not there. So, the scale of the project is huge.”
The Air Force began planning the base in 2015, when officials wrote to Congress that they had “negotiated an agreement with the government of Niger to allow for the construction of a new runway and all associated pavements, facilities and infrastructure adjacent to the Niger Armed Force's base.” Lawmakers added a $50 million appropriation for the project to the fiscal 2016 National Defense Authorization Act.
Komurek explained that the projected construction costs have increased due to “unanticipated effects of the austere conditions and remote location of Agadez.” In June 2017, the Pentagon cited “poor initial planning and design, including the effects of severe weather,” as reasons for the cost overuns. Officials also argued that additional funding was necessary to address security concerns.
Videos and photos of the base show the beginnings of what will eventually be a state-of-the-art outpost, with three mammoth hangars that cost $1.58 million apiece. “You’ll see large satellite dishes; rows of air-conditioned Quonset hut-shaped tan tents; and an Airmen Resiliency Center that serves as both a chapel and recreation center, with Wi-Fi and bookcases filled with few books but many movies and board games,” The Intercept reported.
An Air Force document explained that the site will be used to “support operations against seven … foreign terrorist organizations,” adding: “Moving operations to Agadez aligns persistent ISR (intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) to current and emerging threats over Niger and Chad, supports French regionalization, and extends range to cover Libya and Nigeria.”
Even though construction is not complete, military operations are under way. There have been hundreds of drone strikes from the base, targeting Al Qaeda and ISIS operatives, in the bordering country of Lybia since 2016.
U.S. personnel also have been working with Nigerian forces, which came to light last year when four American soldiers were killed in an ambush. U.S. aircraft from the new base in Niger were on the scene within 90 minutes, according to Army Maj. Gen. Roger Cloutier.
The Pentagon has been quietly expanding its presence in Africa since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States. Personnel have established bases and camps for fast-response teams and special-operations forces. Some of the sites house large planes, while others have only small surveillance aircraft. An American task force based in Djibouti conducted covert drone strikes in Somalia and Yemen in 2011 and 2012, a Pentagon document revealed.
The U.S. Africa Command, or Africom, argues that it is maintaining just a “small footprint” in Africa. But Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, a member of former President Obama's cabinet, admitted that the largest American base in the area (Camp Lemonnier) was “a hub with lots of spokes out there on the continent and in the region.”
In addition to Niger, the United States has deployed Predator drones and other aircraft to facilities in Chad, Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, Seychelles, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, the Central African Republic, Gabon, Ghana, Mali, Senegal, Sudan and Uganda.
The bases ensure American military access to many other countries, such as Botswana, Namibia, Sao Tome and Principe, Sierra Leone, Tunisia and Zambia. The United States has agreements with 29 airports across Africa to use the facilities for refueling planes and other aircraft.