Last month Special Operations Command Africa (SOCAFRICA) posted a contract solicitation for two helicopters to be based at undisclosed locations in Niger in support of military operations in “the North and West Africa Area of Operations”, which includes the countries of Mali, Algeria, Libya, Tunisia, Chad, Cameroon, Nigeria, Benin, Mauritania, Senegal and Burkina Faso. Two weeks ago it posted a revised solicitation in response to interested company questions. Both the original and revised solicitations offer further insight into the evolving U.S. military presence in the region.
To begin, the contract refers to a previously undisclosed “AFRICOM Analysis Office” in Arlit, a remote mining city in northern Niger that is the source of most of the uranium for France’s nuclear power plants. Arlit is also a key transportation node in the region, used by both Islamic militants operating across the Sahel and Maghreb and smugglers transporting migrants north to the Mediterranean coast and then on to Europe. The city appears to be the primary operating base for the SOCAFRICA helicopters, based on contract language (p. 39 in original solicitation) identifying it as the delivery location for all required reporting—daily sitreps, logs, administrative reports, etc.—and necessary equipment, supplies, personnel, etc.
One of the reasons that AFRICOM utilizes contracted air support is visibility. Unmarked civilian planes and helicopters are relatively unobtrusive, masking the military’s presence and activities. This contract is no different, as it specifically states that “aircraft shall not be painted in a color that is close to military colors and paint schemes. A conservative, predominately white, civilian-style paint scheme is preferred” (p. 7 of revised solicitation).
The contract is one more data point indicating that Niger is now the most important hub for the U.S. military the region. In 2014 AFRICOM shifted its primary contract for airlift support from Ouagadougou to Niamey, where its main drone base for the region is also located. The construction of a second drone base in Agadez (begun last year) and presence of an “analysis office” supporting SOCAFRICA operations in Arlit indicates that the military views the northern reaches of Niger as a critical site in its ongoing counterterrorism operations in the region.