Additional pilots and aircraft may also be needed. There are 800 U.S. personnel in Niger, mostly based at Niamey’s airport. It remains unclear whether the armed drones in Niger will be used to better protect U.S. troops, expand strike capabilities against militants in the region, or both, Scharre said.
The ability of the United States to provide adequate close air support and surveillance in Niger was questioned after the deaths of four U.S. soldiers in an ambush involving at least 50 militants near the Mali border on Oct. 4. French fighter aircraft arrived from Mali an hour after the attack but did not fire or drop any munitions, and French attack helicopters arrived later. The United States had an unarmed surveillance drone in the air during the fight.
Arming drones could help blunt future attacks in which militants outnumber Special Operations troops operating in small teams, Scharre said.
“A long history suggests small teams [of elite troops] can become rapidly vulnerable,” he said, noting instances like the “Black Hawk Down” mission in Somalia in 1993. “You need a quick-reaction force and medevac to be nearby. Support is not the place to skimp.”
Talks to arm U.S. drones have been going on for at least two years between the State Department, the Nigerien government and the Pentagon, the State Department official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss agreements not yet made public. The recent deaths of U.S. troops and an Islamic State presence in the region may have added some urgency for the move, the official said.
It was unclear whether the U.S. military must receive permission each time armed drones operate from Nigerien soil. That may depend on any potential restrictions on striking targets inside Niger itself, said Andrew Lebovich, a visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. Current drone surveillance operations are conducted near the border with Mali, in northern Niger and in southern Libya, where militants use ungoverned areas to move fighters, weapons and contraband. The drones could be used in those areas.
“We won’t know until strikes start happening,” Lebovich said.
The Pentagon declined to comment on specific agreements. Maj. Audricia M. Harris, a Defense Department spokeswoman, said Friday that “the government of Niger and the U.S. stand firm in working together to prevent terrorist organizations from using the region as a safe haven.”
The agreement, outlined in a memo first reported by the New York Times, details a plan to shift the nerve center for unmanned flights to the Saharan city of Agadez, where the United States is finishing construction on a more sophisticated drone operation.
Nigerien officials have been under pressure to defuse tensions in the sparsely populated area, where civilians fear an increased foreign military presence puts them at risk for miscalculations and militant attacks.
In April 2016, U.S. security forces in Agadez thwarted a suspected attack on their compound by a convoy of men in three pickup trucks and a semi truck, according to a U.S. Air Force account recently made public. Air Force guards spotted the trucks racing toward the compound in the dark and stopping about 50 yards from the perimeter fence. The vehicles retreated after U.S. sharpshooters aimed lasers at them as a warning, according to the Air Force account.
Sudarsan Raghavan and Craig Whitlock contributed to this report.