The U.S. military is making plans to evacuate its drone bases in Niger, but no such order is imminent, said Air Force Gen. James Hecker, commander of US Air Forces Europe/Africa.
“We are doing a lot of prudent planning, but right now we’re not going anywhere, and we don’t plan to go anywhere until we’re told to go anywhere,” Hecker told reporters on Friday. “And right now, there’s not a need to go anywhere, so our civilian leadership is just saying, ‘Hey, hang tight, and continue planning in case something happens.’ And we’ll be ready if something happens, but hopefully this thing gets done politically, diplomatically with no bloodshed.”
Hecker spoke during a Defense Writers Group event, which is based at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., and funded by the Carnegie Corporation of New York.
The U.S. military has two drone bases in Niger: One in the country’s capital of Niamey and the other, Agadez, that cost $110 million to build. After taking power last month in a coup, the military junta now ruling Niger closed the country’s airspace, preventing the U.S. from flying drone missions for now.
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Roughly 1,100 U.S. troops are deployed to Niger, which has become an increasingly important partner for counter-terrorism operations in Africa. Several other countries in the region including Mali and Burkina Faso have experienced coups in recent years and become more closely aligned with Russia.
So far, the U.S. government is not calling the overthrow of Niger’s democratically elected president a coup, which would trigger the end of American economic and military assistance to the country.
Meanwhile, the 15-member Economic Community of West African States has threatened to invade Niger if ousted President Mohamed Bazoum is not restored to power, and Mali and Burkina Faso have both said they would consider such an intervention as an act of war against them.
Hecker said on Friday that U.S. Air Forces Europe/Africa has been ordered to conduct planning to evacuate the two drone bases in Niger under both permissive and nonpermissive circumstances.
“We are planning it because it’s prudent planning to be ready for all situations,” Hecker said. “There’s a lot of hypotheticals that we could come up with why and if we should evacuate. We are hoping that we don’t have to evacuate.”
The U.S. government is trying to reach a diplomatic solution to Niger’s current crises so that it does not turn violent, Hecker said.
If U.S. Air Forces Europe/Africa is ordered to conduct a gradual evacuation of the two bases that takes place under peaceful conditions, service members would take all U.S. military equipment with them, Hecker said.
Should the U.S. military be ordered to leave the bases under more dangerous conditions, it would just take sensitive equipment and leave behind housing units and other items deemed non-sensitive, he said.
It’s hard to say whether the U.S. military would make the two bases’ runways unusable before leaving, said Hecker, who noted that the base in Niamey is co-located with a civilian airport.
U.S. military planners are also looking at where else in Africa it could base surveillance aircraft, but that issue would ultimately be handled by the State Department, Hecker said.
Hecker stressed that U.S. Air Forces Europe and Africa would only execute these plans if asked by the U.S. government to evacuate its forces from Niger.
“That decision is not anywhere close to being made here,” Hecker said. “And I think we have weeks if not much longer before civilian leadership is going to give an order to evacuate or not evacuate. There’s no talk right now from our civilian senior leadership that tells us to leave. We are doing prudent planning for anything that they may ask us to do.”
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