The U.S. Air Force is months away from completing the construction of an air base in Niger for armed drones that will target militant groups operating in the region, a U.S military official told VOA.
"To date, the Air Force has spent approximately $86.5 million on the construction project at Nigerien Air Base 201," Auburn Davis, a spokesperson for U.S. Air Force Europe and Air Force Africa, told VOA.
"The total estimated construction cost, including FY19 planned projects, is $98.5million," Davis added.
She said that the base, which is located in Agadez city in northern Niger, is the biggest U.S Air Force-led construction project in its history.
Agadez is a strategic city located in the Sahara Desert with easy access for militants and smugglers to cross to and from Libya, Algeria, Mali and Chad.
About 650 U.S. military personnel will be deployed to the base once it's operational. An undetermined number of military drones, including MQ-9s, currently operating from the capital, Niamey, would be transferred to the base, according to the U.S military.
Militarization of the Sahel
Some security analysts, such as William Assanvo, a regional coordinator for West Africa at the Institute for Security Studies Africa, believe that this move indicates the region is becoming increasingly militarized.
"This trend raises some concerns about foreign powers taking roots in the Sahel to pursue national interests that are not always clear, and that may not match [the] national interests of hosting countries," Assanvo told VOA.
"It could also trigger an escalation of attacks and clashes or be a justification for the so-called Jihad some of the extremists groups pretend to be fighting," Assanvo added.
Nigerien officials, however, see the building of the Agadez base as a necessity to address the growing menace of terrorism that poses a threat to the security of Niger and the region.
"Our problems emanate from Libya. The area [between Agadez and the Libyan border] is vast, unpopulated. Terrorists move about freely there," Kalla Mountari, Niger's minister of defense, told VOA, adding that militants use the area to smuggle weapons and ammunition back and forth.
The U.S military says the decision to relocate assets from Niamey to Agadez and to construct the base there was reached in consultation and coordination with the government of Niger.
"The government of Niger requested U.S. Africa Command [AFRICOM] to relocate ISR [Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance] assets from Niamey to Agadez," Davis, the US Air Force Africa spokesperson, told VOA.
Assanvo, of Institute for Security Studies Africa, believes that the move could also be part of an effort by the U.S military to have a low profile presence in the region without triggering potential opposition from the local population.
"The Agadez base has the advantage of making the U.S presence less visible, far from Niger capital, Niamey," Assanvo said. "This is important, given the clear opposition a significant part of the Niger [population] have voiced about the increasing Western presence in the country."
Assanvo is referring to several demonstrations held in various cities across Niger in February after Italy said it would send several hundred troops to the West African country.
Foreign troops a necessity
But Defense Minister Mountari said the presence of these foreign troops are necessary and critical in the country's ongoing fight against terror and other trans-national criminal groups.
""We requested the current [U.S] operations ourselves. Everything has been done with the knowledge and cooperation and at the request of our government because it is for the good of our country," Mountari said.
"Our Agadez base is obsolete with no good runway or navigational equipment. That's why we encouraged the work the U.S. is doing to rebuild Agadez air base since it has become a hub for our fight against terrorists," he added.
The U.S. started operating ISR drones in Niamey in 2013, in support of the French military operations in neighboring Mali and "other regional requirements", according to the U.S. Air Force.
While some critics are voicing concerns over the increased footprint of the U.S military in the region, Nigerien officials charge that U.S. help has been effective and has paid dividends in terms of curbing militancy and terrorism in the Sahel region.
"I will say we are successful already because what the terrorists were able to do to us in the past has decreased significantly because we now have the means to detect and take care of a threat simultaneously," Defense Minister Mountari said.