by and for citizen investigative journalists

African Drone Apron Update

August 20, 2016

By Chris Biggers

DG Chabelley

The U.S. continues to expand drone aprons at African airfields in Djibouti and Niger, recent satellite imagery acquired by Digitalglobe confirms.

Space snapshots acquired in July 2016 of Djibouti’s Chabelley airfield show the addition of four more clamshell shelters since previous reporting in March/April 2016. Three new line of sight communication towers and two ku-band primary satellite links were also visible near the new tension hangars. The two shelters remaining on the older apron, located at the eastern ramp, have since been removed. The older apron probably supported drone operations associated with EU NAVFOR.

Adjacent to the apron, a taxi-way extending out to field parking appeared to be repaved while clearing and leveling activity was spotted near the airfield’s perimeter and bivouac site. A makeshift construction compound had been added to the northeast of the airfield outside the access control point. Several earth moving vehicles and dump trucks were on-site at the time of capture. Given the history of the site, the extended taxi-way may eventually support future apron expansions as more drones are put online or relocated from other forward positions. For example, we’ve noted the relocation of drones from Afghanistan in 2014-2015 and the Reapers at Arba Minch were pulled last November.

The additional drones arriving in Djibouti come at the right time. As things get worse in Yemen, additional surveillance measures will be needed. Yemen has become what some observers see as a new “Vietnam”. By all appearances, the peace process is breaking down. The lack of progress advancing toward a unity government peaked last month when the Houthi Shia movement announced the formation of a 10-member “Supreme Council” to govern territory it controls. The UN special envoy, Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, suspended talks taking place in Kuwait to be resumed at an unspecified date. As a political solution slips further from reach, the return of military action targeting the Houthis is in full swing, despite brief moments of calm. Of course, that says nothing of the other groups vying for influence.

DG (03JUL16) Niamey

Meanwhile in West Africa, recent imagery of Niger’s Diori Hamani in Niamey shows two additional clamshell shelters erected since last year’s update. We’ve noted the ongoing construction activity at the site in other reports. Both tension-shelters were added in 2016, the first (top) during March and the second (bottom) in late June. The first shelter appears to support the basing of more drones. In July, we caught our first glimpse of a Reaper nose protruding from the shelter. What the second shelter supports remains unknown. The site continues to exhibit ongoing construction activity that we’ll continue to watch.

Beyond infrastructure developments, the “Group of Five for the Sahel” agreed in March to create an EU-backed rapid reaction force to counter militants in the region. The agreement is viewed as a mechanism to release pressure on France’s overstretched military presence. Operation Barkhane, France’s largest external operation, has approximately 3,500 troops stationed across the region. France’s main focus for its force has been to counter terrorism and smuggling operations, both symptoms of ungoverned spaces the Western European country sees as a source of instability. Including Barkhane, total French troops on the continent number over 8,000. How successful French forces will be in stabilizing the region — even with the backing of a new rapid reaction force — is debatable, given the lack of a political solution. With no end of French involvement in sight, France may be settling back into a familiar role as the “gendarme of Africa”.

Chris Biggers

Chris Biggers is a public and private sector consultant based in Washington, D.C.

4 Comments

  1. John Zenwirt

    Yemen has become what some observers see as a new “Vietnam”.

    The Americans will not send over 500,000 troops over-seas again. Excepting some existential catastrophe…

    But as strong regional players, such as China, are moving in on Africa in a big way, America, the EU, and NATO, should consider bolstering the Western presence in most of this vast area…

    Reply
    • Chris Biggers

      A “Vietnam” for KSA, not the US. (It may not be quite apt to throw a US foreign policy label on a foreign conflict. That said, when using the Vietnam analogy, we most often talk about the limitations of war.)

      Reply
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