U.S. plans to add drone base in West Africa

U.S. plans to add drone base in West Africa

By , Pub­lished: Jan­u­ary 28 (Orig­i­nal post­ing here.)

The U.S. mil­i­tary is plan­ning a new drone base in Africa that would expand its sur­veil­lance of al-Qaeda fight­ers and other mil­i­tants in north­ern Mali, a devel­op­ment that would esca­late Amer­i­can involve­ment in a fast-spreading conflict.

Two Obama admin­is­tra­tion offi­cials said mil­i­tary plan­ners are eye­ing the West African coun­try of Niger as a base for unarmed Preda­tor drones, which would greatly boost U.S. spy mis­sions in the region.

A U.S. defense offi­cial called the plan “pre­lim­i­nary” and said the Pen­ta­gon, the State Depart­ment, the White House and the gov­ern­ment of Niger would all have to approve. “But it would be a good place to be, in terms of access,” the offi­cial added.

The plan to locate Preda­tor drones in West Africa was first reported Mon­day by the New York Times on its Web site.

If approved, the plan would fill a gap in the Pentagon’s mil­i­tary capa­bil­i­ties over the Sahara, which remains beyond the reach of its drone bases in East Africa and south­ern Europe. U.S. offi­cials said the plan was to use the Preda­tors strictly for sur­veil­lance mis­sions, not airstrikes, but they acknowl­edged that the drones could eas­ily be armed if cir­cum­stances changed.

The U.S. mil­i­tary has been fly­ing a hand­ful of small tur­bo­prop sur­veil­lance planes over north­ern Mali and West Africa for years, but the PC-12 air­craft are lim­ited in range and lack the sophis­ti­cated sen­sors that Preda­tors carry.

Some senior U.S. offi­cials have also wor­ried that the PC-12 air­craft could be shot down by mil­i­tants with a shoulder-fired mis­sile. The U.S. ambas­sador to Mali, Mary Beth Leonard, sus­pended the flights over Mali last year because of con­cerns that a pilot or crew could be held hostage if forced to make an emer­gency land­ing, accord­ing to two U.S. offi­cials who spoke on the con­di­tion of anonymity.

The PC-12 tur­bo­props have been largely based in Burk­ina Faso, a small West African coun­try that shares a long bor­der with Mali. One option under con­sid­er­a­tion at the Pen­ta­gon would be to deploy drones to Burk­ina Faso as well, pos­si­bly at a mil­i­tary base in Oua­gadougou, the capital.

But Niger has been gain­ing favor since last year, when the U.S. mil­i­tary relo­cated one of the PC-12 tur­bo­prop planes to the cap­i­tal, Niamey, after reach­ing an agree­ment with Niger offi­cials, accord­ing to a cur­rent and a for­mer U.S. offi­cial famil­iar with the oper­a­tion. The United States also won per­mis­sion for the sur­veil­lance air­craft to refuel in the north­ern city of Agadez, the offi­cials said.

Army Gen. Carter F. Ham, the chief of the U.S. military’s Africa Com­mand, vis­ited Niger this month to dis­cuss expand­ing the mil­i­tary rela­tion­ship between the two coun­tries, U.S. offi­cials said.

Deploy­ing unmanned Preda­tors to the region would elim­i­nate the risk of crew cap­ture in the event of a shoot-down or acci­dent, but it would also greatly increase the num­ber of U.S. troops on the ground. A Preda­tor base could require as many as 250 Air Force per­son­nel to launch and main­tain the drones, as well as to pro­vide pro­tec­tion for U.S. troops.

In com­par­i­son, the PC-12s require a tenth as many peo­ple to oper­ate, and the Pen­ta­gon has mostly out­sourced those mis­sions to pri­vate con­trac­tors.

You’ve just upped the ante,” said the for­mer U.S. offi­cial, who worked on coun­tert­er­ror­ism pro­grams in West Africa and said the idea of mov­ing Preda­tors to the region has been dis­cussed for two years. “You’ve mil­i­ta­rized the problem.”

In recent days, the United States and Niger have final­ized a new “sta­tus of forces” agree­ment that would per­mit the expanded pres­ence of U.S. troops in the country.

The Obama admin­is­tra­tion has increased coun­tert­er­ror­ism assis­tance to Niger in recent years and sent Spe­cial Forces per­son­nel there on train­ing mis­sions, but the num­bers have been lim­ited to a dozen or so troops at a time.

The Pen­ta­gon has been ham­strung in its effort to gain bet­ter intel­li­gence about the grow­ing num­ber of al-Qaeda fight­ers and other extrem­ists in the Sahara because of a lack of bases in the region, but also because of legal restric­tions on what it can do on Malian territory.

The Obama admin­is­tra­tion with­drew train­ers and shut off mil­i­tary aid to Mali in March after a coup there top­pled a demo­c­ra­t­i­cally elected gov­ern­ment. U.S. offi­cials can­not resume mil­i­tary assis­tance to Mali until it holds new elec­tions — a far-fetched prospect, given the polit­i­cal tur­moil there.

U.S. offi­cials said they were fac­ing a bal­anc­ing act over the need to improve their intel­li­gence col­lec­tion amid a reluc­tance to send more air­craft or troops to the region.

With Niger, the first ques­tion is, is this some­thing they’re will­ing to host?” said a senior U.S. offi­cial who spoke on the con­di­tion of anonymity to dis­cuss inter­nal plan­ning. “If the answer is yes, then the ques­tion is, can you accom­plish some­thing like that with an accept­able footprint?”

As a con­di­tion of win­ning per­mis­sion for a drone base, the U.S. gov­ern­ment might be required to share intel­li­gence from the flights with the Niger mil­i­tary — an added com­pli­ca­tion that has scut­tled or lim­ited other part­ner­ships in the region, U.S. offi­cials said.

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