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‘Building a base from nothing’: $110 million U.S. project in Niger will house drones

Gray Eagle drone (U.S. Army)

There’s no sign yet of a Green Beans Coffee shop, a staple at some of the military’s austere semipermanent bases around the world that troops have come to know. But give it time.

The U.S. Air Force is nearing completion of a $110 million project in the Saharan desert town of Agadez, Niger, known as Air Base 201. And even the locals seem to think the Americans are going to be around for some time to come.

“They will call this the U.S. air base. They want us to feel at home here,” said Lt. Col. Brad Harbaugh, commander of the 724th Expeditionary Air Base Squadron. “I remind them it’s Nigerien.”

The construction effort amounts to the largest Air Force project in history, a fact that has more to do with the service’s history of contracting out major construction than the size of the site in Niger.

Technically, the base — about a mile from the city’s small airport — is Nigerien, but the U.S. has exclusive rights to about 20 percent of the compound’s largely barren 9-mile perimeter, military officials said.

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“We’re building a base from nothing, from scratch,” Harbaugh said. “This was all historically nomadic land.”

The base was slated to open late last year, but completion has been pushed back to the end of 2018 because of the difficulties of operating in the austere southern Sahara.

Work crews must keep newly poured concrete damp during the day so the slates don’t crack in the afternoon heat.

“The guys are working around the clock right now to get it done,” said Capt. Tim Lord, who helps oversee construction.

Three unmanned aerial vehicle aprons are being set up, where drones will park. Niger’s government granted the U.S. authority to carry out armed drone flights shortly after an October ambush that left four U.S. soldiers dead.

Military officials declined to say how many drones would be based at the site.

About 350 military personnel are involved in the project. About 600 airmen are expected to be deployed to the site on six-month tours once construction is finished later this year.

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The campaign also has given a jolt to the local economy. The U.S. has spent about $10 million on asphalt and $7 million on rock that gets crushed to rubble. Locals work jobs at the base dining facility.

A security team monitors the base’s fence line around-the-clock and conducts joint base patrols with Nigerien forces.

The base’s strategic location and cost make it unlikely that the U.S. is in Niger for the short term.

Basewide wireless access has boosted the airmen’s quality of life; however, there are no immediate plans to begin adding fast food and buildings that often come with a more permanent designation.

“This is to be an expeditionary base,” Harbaugh said.

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© 2018 the Stars and Stripes

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