The U.S. military has officially begun drone operations out of a new Niger air base.
In an announcement Friday, U.S. Africa Command officials said they are conducting intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance flights from "Air Base 201" in Agadez in a new effort to counter violent extremism in the region.
"We are working with our African and international partners to counter security threats in West Africa," U.S. Army Gen. Stephen Townsend, head of the command, said in a news release. "The construction of this base demonstrates our investment in our African partners and mutual security interests in the region."
In partnership with Niger's government, "armed and unarmed air assets" will be stationed at the centrally located base to "improve our combined ability to respond to threats and other security issues," according to the release.
The 6,200-foot runway is capable of supporting both U.S. and Nigerien aircraft, officials said.
"Flexible and diverse postures across the African continent enable us to facilitate operational needs and better support our partners in the region," added U.S. Air Force Gen. Jeff Harrigian, U.S. Air Forces Europe-Africa commander. "The location in Agadez was selected in conjunction with Niger due to the geographic and strategic flexibility it offers to regional security efforts."
The newly constructed airfield is estimated to have cost $110 million, according to Stars and Stripes.
ISR operations are also conducted out of Nigerien Air Base 101 in Niamey, closer to the Burkina Faso border.
The Air Force began limited flights out of the new base in August. While awaiting the official assessment required by the Nigerien Civil Aviation Authority, C-130 Hercules aircraft practiced "Visual Flight Rule" regulations, a type of operation to analyze flight paths without using instrumentation, officials said at the time.
During his visit to Niger in September, Townsend said the partners needed Air Base 201 to conduct additional overwatch.
The "base will offer tremendous capability, agility, versatility and provides a range of security options to Niger," he said at the time.
In November 2017, the Nigerien government gave the U.S. permission to begin armed drone flights from the country. The approval closely followed a deadly ambush in Niger that left four U.S. soldiers dead.
Islamic State militants killed Army Sgt. La David Johnson, 25, of Miami Gardens, Florida; Staff Sgt. Bryan C. Black, 35, of Puyallup, Washington; Staff Sgt. Jeremiah W. Johnson, 39, of Springboro, Ohio; and Staff Sgt. Dustin M. Wright, 29, of Lyons, Georgia.
The ambush, which occurred Oct. 4, 2017, near the village of Tongo Tongo in northwestern Niger, led to allegations that a low-risk joint training patrol by U.S. and Nigerien troops was turned into a poorly planned, last-minute raid, lacking backup and air cover, to capture a terror suspect.