AIR BASE 101, NIAMEY, Niger
In the arid strip of northern Africa known as the Sahel, the sun is not a yellow orb in the sky, but a white blur against the haze, beating down through sandy air.
As the cool morning quickly fades, and fluids evaporate imperceptibly in the dry air, the heat rises, making living and working difficult on the land below. The five vast Sahel nations bordering the Sahara desert are as long as the continental United States but combine for just 44 million inhabitants. Their fragile and unstable governments are among the poorest on the globe. They lack the resources to fully patrol their borders or deliver services throughout their territories and must fend off terrorist and insurgent groups that have grown larger and bolder over time. Attacks have increased against civilian and military targets, exporting chaos that now threatens African coastal states, as well.
The tan and yellow landscape and orange-hued mud structures contrast modestly with the the half-dome tents of the 409th Air Expeditionary Group, set up at Air Base 101 in the Niger capital, Niamey, and at Nigerien Air Base 201, in the central city of Agadez. The 435th Air Expeditionary Wing under U.S. Africa Command is in six locations in West and East Africa, and these two Niger locations offer what may be the best hope for stemming the growth of terrorism in Africa.
We don’t want this to be something like Afghanistan.USAF detachment commander in Niamey, Niger
Some 800 Airmen are deployed here on six-month rotations, working for group and squadron commanders serving one-year tours. They endure extreme temperatures, sandstorms, and rainy seasons, along with maintenance and supply chain challenges familiar to anyone who has operated in a remote and austere base. Missions include intelligence gathering with MQ-9 Reapers and other surveillance aircraft and operations against terrorist groups across the Sahel.
U.S. forces here share ISR data with allied and partner nations and train local military units to combat terrorists on the ground. If not for the U.S. Air Force and partner nations, a new terrorist safe haven in the Sahel of Africa would be a certainty.
“We don’t want this to be something like Afghanistan,” said an Air Force major serving as a Forward Aviation Detachment commander in Niamey. Full names are not used for certain personnel out of operational concerns.
As a special operator, he oversees fixed and rotary wing aircraft and unmanned ISR platforms at AB101. “Yes, what we’re doing out here is making a difference. And if you make the sacrifice to come out here, leave your family, then we are going to be able to help the Nigeriens as well as stop any sort of blowback coming to the U.S.,” said the special operator.
“As far as day in-day out, it’s very difficult to maintain all the aircraft in the austere locations that we’re dealing with,” he continued. “The high temperatures affect aircraft performance, and then just all the blowing sand, dust, gums up engine components, everything like that. So, day in-day out, our maintainers are working extra hard to keep these planes in the air.”
Rapidly changing weather patterns, including high winds at AB201 curtail missions as commanders protect platforms amid an insatiable demand for intelligence gathering.
A dearth of spare parts and long wait times to receive them lead to delays and canceled sorties. Sometimes maintainers arrive hand-carrying parts. Other times, maintainers show up but parts do not. On one recent visit, a temporary duty maintainer sent from Spangdahlem Air Base, Germany, shot billiards alone in the long, air-conditioned tent that is AB101’s rec room. He had already waited a week for a spare part to arrive needed to repair a C-17.
The Air Force has no permanent presence in the African theater, relying on deployed assets and expeditionary bases to detect terrorist threats, assist partners, train up local forces and, in some cases, conduct special operations.
“We’re the only Air Force Active-duty MQ-9 unit that’s out here,” said the detachment commander at AB201.
“The MQ-9 has a good endurance capability. So, long endurance capacity, and with that said, it enables us to support areas that are contested, but from areas that aren’t,” said the special operator, a major responsible for MQ-9 maintenance, launch, and recovery at AB201.
Unlike typical deployed locations that have a separate squadron for maintenance and operations, the two are combined at AB101 and AB201. The maintainers, pilots, sensor operators, and others range from newly trained Airmen to seasoned operators on their fifth or sixth deployment. Morale is high.
“What’s unique to us here it’s probably the level of authority, autonomy that we push to them because of the unique shape of our base,” said Capt. Andrew Cook, security forces flight commander at AB101. Leadership leans heavily on noncommissioned officers and responsibility is delegated, Cook said.
The sense of mission and fulfillment are clear among the tightknit team, operating out of tents and containers at a base where the only pavement is for the runway and the combination basketball court/outdoor gym.
“The time flies by,” Cook said. “There’s just a great sense of getting things done, because everyone’s geared to focus on the mission. … You get a lot of sense of accomplishment. It’s just an amazing opportunity to see folks really hone their own leadership skills, but also challenge you as well.”
Slow internet and unpredictable mail delivery means the distance and remoteness are palpable. It can take three to eight weeks for a letter or package to arrive. Contact with Cook’s wife and children—one, two, and the other four—is as good as the internet connection.
Games break up the grind, he said. “So, bingo night is pretty hoppin’, we’ve got Family Feud. We got pingpong, a pool table, stuff like that,” he said. “I’d say, within my flight, and across the air base as a whole, I think it’s a great operating location, and a lot of people enjoy it. I think there’s more enjoyment than not.”
The United States, France, Germany, and Italy are invited guests of the government of Niger, each with their own strategic objectives. The U.S. uses AB101 and AB201 for medical evacuation, logistics support, ISR and air refueling for allies, and it helps train the Nigerien forces, as well.
Balancing Engagement With Human Rights in Africa
AFRICAN AIR CHIEFS SYMPOSIUM, KIGALI, Rwanda—Security is the thing many Rwandans love most about their country. The land of a thousand hills has clean streets, where citizens can safely walk at night. The countrysides of rice and banana plantations are lush and carefully manicured. Police officers man the corners of city streets in the capital, Kigali, and the Rwandan military participates in peacekeeping missions across the continent, with the U.S. Air Force providing strategic lift to Rwandan defense forces.
But another Rwanda emerged since President Paul Kagame’s Rwandan Patriotic Front entered the country from Uganda, overthrew the government, and ended the 1994 genocide that killed nearly a million Tutsis.
Kagame, 64, now presides over a peaceful oasis in a continent plagued by instability, military coups, violent extremist groups, and deep poverty, but accusations of human rights abuses plague the celebrated hero known by most as “his excellency.” President since 2000, Kagame’s government is accused of targeted assassinations, disappearances, and torture, including the deaths of journalists and opposition figures, according to the nonprofit group Human Rights Watch.
The president has elevated his international reputation militarily by participating in peacekeeping missions in troubled regions of Africa. This year, Rwanda also co-hosted the 11th African Air Chiefs Symposium (AACS) with United States Air Forces in Europe-Air Forces Africa Jan. 24-28 in Kigali.
“Most observers would agree, Rwanda is not a stable country,” National Defense University scholar Joseph Siegle told Air Force Magazine in a telephone interview before the symposium. “They’ve just put a lid on all of these, building up pressures that are there, even though outwardly, it seems to be so.”
But Rwanda is secure, Siegle amitted, and it has the influence in the Great Lakes region of Africa to prevent instability from spreading from the troubled eastern region of the Democratic Republic of Congo.
“It’s a smoldering set of challenges, and they are pursuing regional solutions,” Siegle explained.
Hence Rwanda’s hosting of this year’s AACS, the first in-person event in two years, with a goal to work toward shared strategic airlift on the continent.
“Many of Africa’s emerging security challenges are transnational, and so, no one country has the resources to respond alone. We must prioritize the benefits of working together,” Kagame said during his brief and much-celebrated symposium attendance to deliver opening remarks amid intense security.
“Security and prosperity are two sides of the same coin, you cannot have one without the other,” he concluded.
USAFE-AFAFRICA Commander Gen. Jeffrey L. Harrigian told Air Force Magazine that balancing human rights concerns with the U.S. military’s strategic objectives requires engagement that can lead to improvements.
“The important part for me personally has been, let’s understand the entire picture,” he said in an exclusive interview before the start of the final conference day.
“Clearly, human rights is important to us, and something that, as the United States, this is who we are. But at the same time, understanding the nuances of what’s happening here was something that was important to me, because it gives context to the relationships,” he said, noting that he had several engagements prior to the event with U.S. Ambassador to Rwanda Peter H. Vrooman. The conference week also helped to deepen U.S. Air Force and Rwanda Defence Force (RDF) trust and cooperation.
“As we’ve, I’ll call it, ‘matured,’ our relationship with the Rwanda Defence Force here, at least this past week, it’s clear to me, they are extremely professional, dedicated to their mission set,” Harrigian said. “I think it’s in our best interest to stay close to them and continue to grow this relationship because at the end of the day, they will continue to grow their capabilities.”
He added: “We walk the journey together, and if we’re not here, that will come to an end. … I would offer it’s not in our interest to do that.”
Rwanda’s participation in African Union peacekeeping missions across the continent has contributed to stability and allowed African nations to manage their own crises with reduced external assistance from the U.S. Air Force and European partners.
In January and February 2014, two U.S. Air Force C-17s airlifted a Rwandan mechanized battalion of 850 soldiers and more than 1,000 tons of equipment to the Central African Republic for a peacekeeping mission.
In recent years, Rwanda has sent peacekeeping forces to Mozambique and Sudan, providing airlift, evacuation, and use of air assets in joint actions. Before Rwanda’s participation in the United Nations–African Union Mission in Darfur, which ended in 2016, Rwanda was the second largest contributor of peacekeeping forces in the world. It now stands at fourth, according to the RDF.
In remarks July 21, 2021, at a U.S.-Rwanda preparatory meeting for the 2021 Peacekeeping Ministerial in Seoul, Vrooman highlighted the U.S.-Rwanda partnership, and Rwanda’s peacekeeping efforts over nearly two decades.
“Rwanda undertakes peacekeeping as a constitutional and moral obligation,” Vrooman said, reflecting on how the U.N. failed to act to prevent the 1994 genocide.
The ambassador noted how the United States has trained and the RDF has deployed more than 45,000 personnel in support of U.N. missions globally. As of July 2021, Rwanda had more than 5,000 troops, police, and others on U.N. missions.
In a pull aside interview after his remarks at AACS, Vrooman told Air Force Magazine about the delicate balance between human rights concerns and military-to-military ties.
“I’m really a strong believer in engagement, diplomatic as well as military engagement,” Vrooman said. “Some people don’t always believe in that, but I have found that that’s really how you come to greater understanding. It doesn’t mean that you will always have influence. But, if you don’t try, you won’t have any effect.”
The Rwanda Defence Force cooperates with the United States mainly in the training of some Air Force cadets and senior officers at air staff and command courses, RDF said. Such courses often include human rights and law of war training.
Vrooman said he has seen firsthand the benefits of U.S. training to instill human rights values.
“Rwandans are very receptive to it,” said Vrooman, a former student at National Defense University.
Vrooman said using pressure tactics like sanctions are hard to roll back and can limit the opportunity to deepen a partnership and exert positive influence.
“That limits your ability at times to be able to engage. So, it’s a balancing act,” he said.
In written responses to questions from Air Force Magazine, Rwandan Defence Force spokesman Col. Ronald Rwivanga flatly denied that his country commits human rights abuses.
“False and unfounded accusations,” Rwivanga said. “Where the answer is not satisfactory there are courts to deliver individual concerns.”
Asked what is being done to strengthen human rights in Rwanda and the RDF, Rwivanga said: “They are already strong enough.”
“A people-centered transformation agenda, a justice system that satisfies Rwanda[’]s needs, and an economy that is steadily growing and strives to improve the livelihood of the citizens is what we consider to be the principle human rights,” he said. “All dissent and contestation is managed through democratic channels by electing the right leaders that people want. This is what is happening and will continue to happen.”
Surrounded by Terrorism
Across Niger one can find practically every known terrorist group on the African continent. Elmikkaiel Adam Maiga, 54, a Nigerien translator who used to work at AB101, says it was not always this way. He recalls a time before his fellow Nigerien citizens worried about indiscriminate massacres by terrorist gangs on motorcycles, who burn villages and kill soldiers at military outposts.
“A lot of things are happening right now in this country—a lot of things. Things that we are not used to,” he told Air Force Magazine, waiting for friends under the cool shade of a tree in the quiet Niamey neighborhood where he grew up. Dressed in a dark green desert shawl, his open-toed sandals nestled in the sandy Earth.
“I remember when I was growing up, sometimes in the middle of the night, one, two, three o’clock in the morning, somebody could come and knock at your door, you will open your door, and the person would tell you, ‘I came from Tilbury. I came from Ayarou. I came from Agadez by foot walking’ without any problem. You know, peaceful country, very, very peaceful. And all that, all of a sudden, has changed.”
In 2021 alone, nearly two dozen terrorist attacks took the lives of more than 600 people, among them hundreds of civilians and dozens of soldiers.
The fall of Muammar Qaddafi’s government in Libya in 2011 let loose a stockpile of weapons that soon spread to armed militants and terrorist groups across North and West Africa. Ongoing economic disparity and government corruption contributes to a stagnant economy and high, youth unemployment, despite Niger’s rich mineral resources.
“Those villages where you have terrorists, who are they?” Maiga posed. “At the beginning, yes, they came from the outside. But then they recruited the local people, local youth, who have nothing to do. They offered them some money.”
Special Operations Command Africa (SOCAF) spokesperson Maj. Andrew Caulk said the country is disadvantaged by its neighborhood.
“Niger is surrounded really on three sides and sort of almost four vectors by instability and violent extremism,” he said.
An arms trafficking route traces the northern border of Niger from Libya west along the Algerian border down into the West African tri-border region of Niger, Burkina Faso and Mali. Islamic State Greater Sahara operates there, as well as the Al Qaeda-affiliated JNIM and subordinate organizations.
“We’re also seeing threats rise in what we call B2/N2—so that’s Burkina Faso, Benin, Nigeria and Niger,” Caulk said. “We’re also seeing some Al Qaeda-related activity start to spring up again in the form of a clone Islamic organization called Ansaru, in northwestern Nigeria.”
To the southeast, the Lake Chad Basin, along Niger’s border with Nigeria, remnants of Boko Haram remain, along with a new threat, Islamic State West Africa Province, rising.
“You have this situation where there’s a lot of instability surrounding Niger. Despite that, we’ve seen them doing just an extraordinary job of managing to keep those threats out of their country, for the most part, they are confined to the border regions,” Caulk said. “Part of that has been our partnership with them and working with them over the last few years.”
Air Force Tech Sgt. Frank Jimenez leads an eight-week training program at Air Base 201 with the Nigerien Armed Forces, or FAN for its French acronym.
“I’ve been all over the globe from Iraq, Afghanistan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and here,” he told Air Force Magazine. “How this is different is the constant interaction with the host nation. … You’re working side by side with them, you train with them, building up the partnership face-to-face is a different aspect, a more rewarding one.”
Jimenez shares tea with the Nigeriens he trains and joins them for joint patrols on the installation. The air adviser highlighted the FAN soldiers’ inquisitiveness, dedication and clear rank structure.
Vice Commander of the U.S. European Command 435th Air Ground Operations Wing and the AFRICOM 435th Air Expeditionary Wing at Ramstein Air Base, Germany, Col. Calvin B. Powell told Air Force Magazine that Niger is critical in stemming the violent extremist organization (VEO) expansion in both the Sahel and Lake Chad region.
“The U.S. steadily invests in further building Niger’s counterterrorism, intelligence and aviation capabilities,” he said in an email.
“Africa is an emerging front in the strategic power competition. A destabilized Africa not only impacts Africans and Americans but also our allies and partners in other places around the world,” he said. “VEOs present a long-term threat to the U.S., international partners, and regional interests. It is important that we degrade their ability to act now or risk paying the price later.”
The U.S. commitment to Niger, including the training of its forces, is making an impact in strengthening relationships with the host nation.
Nigerien Air Base 101 Commander Lt. Col. Ismael Ka described to Air Force Magazine some of the capacity building the U.S. Air Force is doing, including a C-130 program and a Cessna 208 program.
The programs teach the Niger Air Force casualty evacuation and ISR, reaching 15,000 flight hours in six years.
“The U.S. is one of our best partners now,” Ka said in an interview during the African Air Chiefs Symposium in Kigali.
“In this fight against terrorists, there had been a lot with this particular Cessna program if you see how many people we will transfer in terms of casualty evacuation since we acquired these platforms,” he said.
In addition to cooperation and intelligence sharing with the U.S. and partners hosted in Niger, Ka highlighted how the know-how and assets are helping make Niger a leader among the G5 Sahel countries that include Burkina Faso, Mali, Mauritania, and Chad.
Niger’s capability improvement has allowed it to conduct air-to-ground and air-to-air integration with the Burkina Faso Air Force and to better partner with French ground troops to fight terrorists. Niger contributes two battalions to the multinational G5 Sahel Joint Force and hosts its Central Sector Headquarters.
Terrorism is “not a Niger problem, it’s regional. It’s a regional problem,” Ka said, while acknowledging his air force still has a ways to go in terms of ISR capabilities, logistics, and intelligence collection. “We have support for our partners. So, this support, I think this is the point that keeps Niger safe.”
But Niger’s partner countries have suffered instability in recent years. Of the five G5 countries, Mali, Chad, and Burkina Faso have all suffered military coups in the last two years, with the most recent happening just weeks ago. Such non-democratic transitions freeze U.S. assistance to the country and halt intelligence sharing. France is also preparing to pull some 3,000 troops out of Mali, a country it has helped stabilize since 2013. French soldiers from Operation Barkhane who spoke to Air Force Magazine believe Russia is behind a recent spree of coups across West Africa. Russia’s Wagner Group is already helping Mali manage its restive north. The French soldiers believe should their country pull out of Mali, Russia would have an open invitation to move in.
Great Power Competition in Africa
National Defense University scholar Joseph Siegle told Air Force Magazine that there is strong evidence Russia is trying to displace France and other Western influence in Africa through tacit or outward support for military takeovers, as well as propaganda. “It’s an easy way to expand Moscow’s role within a quick time frame and add more influence,” he said.
“Let’s be clear, the Russians are not there to solve those problems,” Siegle said. “The Russians are there to expand their own influence and they’re doing that by helping to prop up some of these military governments and other leaders who they’ve been able to co-opt. And that works.”
China, too, is seeking influence across the continent, building and financing infrastructure projects and casting its eyes on the continent’s untapped mineral resources.
China seeks access to deep-water ports, especially an Atlantic naval base to balance its port and military installation in Djibouti on the Horn of Africa and the Gulf of Aden. In Djibouti, China’s base is literally down the road from the U.S. Naval Expeditionary Base at Camp Lemonnier.
Gen. Jeffrey L. Harrigian, U.S. Air Force in Europe-Air Forces Africa commander, said the African continent is bigger and more complicated than most Americans realize.
“Broadly, our goal is to be great partners with the nations across Africa in that, the natural resources, the people, the potential that’s here in Africa,” Harrigian said. “Strategically, our goal is to make sure that we’re the partners they want to come to, the partners that they feel they have trust and confidence in, and that we’re going to work together to achieve their objectives.”
Shared Strategic Airlift Is Focus of Africa Air
With 54 nations spread out on a continent three times greater than the United States and comprising 20 percent of the world’s land mass, strategic airlift is essential to establishing a semblance of unity and security.
The U.S. Air Force contributes airlift in the fight against terrorism, supports peacekeeping, and responds to humanitarian disasters across the continent, working closely with both African and European allies. Now, Air Forces Africa is calling for increased sharing as a better solution to strategic airlift.
At the four-day African Air Chiefs Symposium in Kigali, Rwanda, this past January, the U.S. proposed sharing airlift as a way to draw nations together. “The goal here is to find ways that we can look at it across the continent and leverage the regional expertise that is so prevalent here,” said U.S. Air Forces in Europe-Air Forces Africa Commander Gen. Jeffrey L. Harrigian in an exclusive interview.
Harrigian said air liaison officers across the continent have helped develop a shared understanding and identified what is “in the realm of the possible.”
Rwandan Air Force Gen. Jean Jacques Mupenzi said distance poses unique challenges here. “Our region is vast [and] characterized by limited transportation infrastructure,” he said. “Hence [it] requires effective air mobility mechanisms to bridge distances, support replenishment of troops in theatre … and attend to humanitarian assistance. … Strengthening regional cooperation in the air domain is critical in order to respond to common security challenges.”
Terrorist and criminal groups operate from remote safe havens beyond the reach of some governments. Lt. Col. Jared Cordell, a combat aviation adviser with Air Force Special Operations Command, said in a phone interview that airlift is the key to shrinking the long distances that make it so hard for African governments to crack down on terrorism.
“In a lot of places, airlift is the most valuable and most important thing that they can do because it brings cargo, men, and equipment to places that need it,” he said in a phone interview ahead of the conference. “It … brings governance to those outlying areas and shows the country’s flag in disparate and outlying parts of the various countries.” U.S. forces maintain a low profile here. “It’s not the U.S. flag that’s showing up at a random airstrip in another place,” Cordell said. “It’s their own country that’s bringing their own country’s governance to that area.”
Finding a Way Forward
Nine African nations from the Maghreb and Western and Eastern Africa met with U.S. Air Force officials six times from April to August 2021 to focus on how to increase sharing. Regional groups, including the African Union and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), joined as observers.
Tunisian Air Chief Maj. Gen. Mohamed Hajem said shared strategic airlift in Africa will require a common doctrine and standard operating procedures. “That’s really the vision with the program, with the planning, and we should be aware of our actual capacity and the threats and challenges of the future,” he told Air Force Magazine in an interview.
Harrigian said the first step is developing command and control and leveraging existing capabilities within regional organizations. “There are some really unique relationships—multilateral ones—that happen regionally. We have to try to pull that together into a continental view,” he added. “That’s not easy—it’s a heavy lift.”
Egypt, Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia have the most advanced air forces on the continent, but do not have a cooperative work agreement in place for their air forces. Now Tunisia is taking a lead role in promoting the sharing of air assets in Africa.
Hajem said Harrigian’s leadership has already advanced peace and security in the region, and in particular elevated the U.S.-Tunisia relationship. But much more needs to be done. A working group presentation at the symposium indicated operational-level potential for sharing, but a lack of high-level political and military agreements among the nations. Cooperation will also require greater commonality and interoperability, ensuring reliable supply chains for spare parts and common operating practices.
“All that should be ready so that you can employ your air assets and procedures on U.S. standards to be sure that you are interoperable with the U.S. side and other partners,” Hajem said.
Botswana Air Chief Maj. Gen. Hendrick Tbuthu Rakgantswana said his nation relies on the U.S. for both training and equipment, and noted he learned to fly C-130s at MacDill Air Force Base, Fla. Botswana recently acquired three C-130s through U.S. Foreign Military Sales, but one is currently grounded due to financial constraints.
“In our regional economic community, the Southern African Development Community, we face a lot of disasters and crises, and we don’t have the requisite airlift capability,” he said. “So, it means, now, that we have to come together and pool our resources.”
That could mean funding, aircraft, and trained personnel. Botswana contributes to peacekeeping efforts in Mozambique and provides airlift assistance to neighbors Lesotho and Malawi. But Rakgantswana argues that a clear structure of sharing would allow countries to do more. “This mechanism is the answer,” he said. “We just now have to make it fit in the existing structures,” he said, such as the African Union or SADC. “We just need that link. They just need to appreciate the existence of the Association of African Air Forces and how it can assist from strategic airlift mechanisms.”
DRILLING FOR PRACTICE
One cool February morning, two armored vehicles with gun turrets pulled up alongside the basketball court at AB101. Airmen dismounted and ran between the two vehicles, the turrets turning to cover their movement while Master Sgt. David Worley stood between the vehicles, pointing and shouting questions and instructions.
“What side is contact?”
“Driver side contact.”
“OK, go in and do your portion. Where is your gunner facing? All right, gunner. Come on!”
“Once he’s down, you need to communicate with the gunner. What’s he doing?”
The vehicle cross loader training for convoys mimicked a real-world scenario in which one vehicle is immobilized and the second must provide cover as Airmen transfer to the operable vehicle. Worley ran the exercise again later that morning as part of a knowledge exchange with French Soldiers from Operation Barkhane visiting AB101 from their adjacent base.
“A lot of opportunities here to really make things your own,” Worley told Air Force Magazine after the first training session. “And what I mean by that is, build up programs, build up defenses, improve process, all that good stuff.
“I’m excited to see what Air Base 101 will look like in the next, you know, five to 10 years—if we happen to be here that long—to see how the fruits of our labor kind of improve what we have here,” he said. “The reward is completely something you can’t really … you have to feel that, right? Being able to be part of a team that is doing so much, growing so much—and that’s something you can see down the road and say, ‘Hey, I was part of that.’ That’s an amazing feeling all by itself.”
It’s an opportunity worth taking, he said, though perhaps not for the uncommitted. “If you get the opportunity to come out here,” Worley said, “be ready for the challenge.”