The U.S. has a growing drone base in Niger—and it’s the centerpiece of American and French missions to spy on rebels and terrorists in West Africa.
Now there’s new satellite imagery of the base providing a close-up look.
In an image dated October 2013—captured by satellite imaging firm DigitalGlobe and spotted by the intelligence blog Open Source IMINT—two clamshell-shape drone hangars are seen along with two groups of communications arrays. See this link for a high-resolution pic.
The base is split into two sides. The French side, on left, is digitally altered to conceal several buildings. Several ancillary buildings did not appear in earlier satellite images of the base.
It’s worth pointing out that France uses twin satellite communications arrays for its Harfang drones. This is because the Harfang—jointly produced by France and Israel—needs one data link for controlling the drone and another for receiving video.
“Additional support areas for troops and aircraft have been observed around the airfield and new leveling activity near the drone apron was noted at the time of capture,” Open Source IMINT commented.
The base is located next to the Diori Hamani International Airport in Niamey, Niger’s capital. It isn’t a secret, but both Washington and Paris are tight-lipped about its operations.
The facility was constructed in 2012, only a few months before the French intervention in neighboring Mali to roll back an offensive by several Islamist rebel groups—including the Al Qaeda-linked Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa.
French troops backed by drones and fighter jets drove the Islamists out of central Mali, but the war continues in the country’s northeastern badlands.
In January, France began operating two Reaper drones from Niger, both acquired from Washington. This comes after Paris purchased 12 Reapers, which have a longer range and more capabilities than the Harfang.
The base’s location also gives France access to most of West Africa—especially with the new Reapers. The 1,150-mile range of the Reaper means French drones can fly from the Libyan border to the north, the Atlantic coast to the south and the Central African Republic to the east.
The big question is whether armed drone missions will be launched from the Niamey base. So far, the U.S. drone missions have been surveillance-only. The French Reapers are likewise unarmed, according to Defense News.
At least for now. The drones are still engaged in a real war. Their mission is to “eliminate all traces of Al Qaeda,” French defense minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said in December.
But let’s be real. This is a trend that’s only likely to increase. France and the U.S. are relying more on relatively inexpensive drones to monitor large areas of West Africa and the Sahara without the risk of losing a pilot.
This also isn’t the only U.S. drone base in Africa. Dijbouti and Ethiopia are also home to drones.
“After France modifies the Reapers to fit French or European payloads (including sensors and data link transmission), imagery may observe more of these aprons constructed throughout the region,” Open Source IMINT noted.