Defense Secretary Jim Mattis is looking to change how U.S. special operations forces are prepared for missions in Africa after an October ambush by extremists in Niger revealed training shortfalls.
“On the Niger situation, we are making changes on the personnel assignment policy,” Mattis told reporters at the Pentagon last week. “As you know, one of the things we uncovered was some of those troops did not train together, what we thought was for a sufficiently long enough time.”
“We have changed some of the training requirements as well," Mattis said. "But as far as our continued operations there, we continue in support of the French-led trans-Sahel effort down there, and in building our partner nations' capacity to fight this enemy.”
The French military has been heavily involved in fighting members of the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara in Mali, the group that claimed responsibility for the attack in October that left four U.S. soldiers and four Nigerien soldiers dead.
A U.S. Africa Command investigation of the ambush determined that the members of the joint Army Green Beret and Nigerien detachment — known as Team Ouallam — did not have sufficient experience working together as a unit.
The deaths of four U.S. soldiers in Niger in an early October ambush has cast a spotlight on a once-obscure mission in the West African nation.
“The Niger 15-6 investigation found that there were areas where training was insufficient, including pre-deployment collective training for Team Ouallam due to high turnover and the assignment of new members,” Maj. Karl Weist, an AFRICOM spokesman, said Wednesday in a statement to Military Times. “As a result, a recommendation was made to address areas of improvement.”
After the Niger report was released, Mattis directed AFRICOM, as well as U.S. Special Operations Command, the Army and the under secretary of defense for personnel and readiness to conduct a comprehensive review of procedures, policies and training programs and report back to him with a plan of action and corrective measures, according to Weist.
“Mattis received those reports by the 120-day deadline and will conduct a thorough review of the findings,” Weist said. "We will release more information once [Mattis’] review is complete.”
The U.S. military has already made other changes since the October ambush, including arming drones that previously only provided intelligence collection in Niger and allocating more aircraft assets for future missions.
”I won’t go into details here, but we have increased the firepower, we’ve increased the ISR [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance] capacity, and we’ve increased various response times,” Marine Gen. Thomas Waldhauser, AFRICOM commander, told reporters in May.
The U.S. Air Force is also close to opening Niger Air Base 201 on the edge of the Sahara Desert, which is the largest airmen-led construction project in the history of the service, according to Air Force Capt. Mayrem Morales, a U.S. Air Forces Africa spokesperson.
The base’s total cost will be roughly $98.5 million, according to Morales. The base will eventually house the U.S. armed drone mission in Niger that currently operates out of Niger’s capital, Niamey.
French forces in Mali also struck at the terrorist presence there in late August, reportedly killing Mohamed Ag Almouner, a key leader of the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara, near Mali’s border with Niger, according to the French defense ministry.