The President and his new Best Friend: The Drone

Heather Ginsberg

2/23/2013 12:45:00 PM - Heather Ginsberg

So now that the president has realized what an effective practice using drones is, he has stepped it up and is now building a drone base in Niger. The new base will be used for surveillance missions in the latest efforts by the president to help the French in their efforts to battle Islamic militants in neighboring Mali. The U.S. has now deployed 100 troops to the West African nation of Niger.

In a letter to Congress on Friday, President Obama said the deployment would "provide support for intelligence collection and will also facilitate intelligence sharing with French forces conducting operations in Mali, and with other partners in the region."

The last 40 American troops in the deployment arrived in Niger on Feb. 20 with the consent of the government, Obama said.

A senior U.S. officer described the troops as a security unit that will protect crews flying and maintaining U.S. Air Force drones now operating from an airfield near the capital, Niamey. The force includes drone pilots, intelligence liaison officers and aircraft maintenance personnel, the officer said.

"We're basing drones there to help the French, and this deployment is the security element," the officer said.

He spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss details of the operation publicly.

French forces have been battling to push Islamic militants out of northern Mali in recent weeks in an effort to oust insurgents who seized local control after the civilian government collapsed last year.

Predator drones are already flying over Mali to assist French troops, who intervened in January and have driven back militants and Tuareg rebels, who had taken over three major cities and were threatening Mali's capital, Bamako.

The drones flying from Niger will be unarmed surveillance aircraft tracking suspected militants operating in the remote parts of northern Mali. The aircraft could also be used over other countries in the region, the officer said.

The Obama administration has not yet decided to establish a permanent drone base in Niger, the senior officer said. For the moment, the operation is considered a temporary mission to assist the French.

But some senior officers in the Pentagon's Africa Command, which oversees military operations on the continent, favor a permanent base to develop a better picture of the militant threat in West Africa, the officer said.

Among the groups the U.S. is worried about is Boko Haram, an Islamist extremist group in neighboring Nigeria.

Currently, the only permanent base in Africa from which drones operate is in Djibouti, thousands of miles to the east.

In addition to the militants in Mali — some with loose ties to Al Qaeda groups — extremists have taken refuge in the largely ungoverned desert areas of southern Libya and Algeria.

If the Obama administration decides to authorize a permanent base in Niger, it would probably be in Agadez, near northern Mali, the officer said, confirming a report in the New York Times.

Some senior military commanders, in arguing for a permanent base, say the militant threat in the region is growing and could eventually threaten the U.S. and its allies unless more aggressive action is taken.

So where will President Obama take us next? Now that he has found love in the drone program, be prepared to see drones a lot more in warfare and protecting the country and our allies.