KAISERSLAUTERN, Germany -- The Air Force has begun limited flying operations at a remote outpost in the southern Sahara Desert in Niger, where U.S. airmen recently built a 6,200-foot runway to support intelligence gathering in West Africa.
Air Force C-130s and other aircraft on resupply missions, in coordination with the Nigerien air force and the country's civil aviation authorities, began flying limited Visual Flight Rule operations into and out of Nigerien Air Base 201 on Aug. 1, U.S. Air Forces in Europe-Air Forces Africa said in a statement.
VFR operations are conducted without instruments to assess an airfield before full flight operations begin, including drone missions, a USAFE-AFAFRICA spokesman said.
Gen. Jeff Harrigian, USAFE-AFAFRICA commander, commended airmen for completing the largest-ever, airmen-led construction project in Air Force history.
"Air Base 201 gives Niger and the U.S. incredible capability in a challenging region of the world," Harrigian said in a statement. "This joint-use runway allows for a better response to regional security requirements and provides strategic access and flexibility."
The $110-million airfield is the most austere location from which the Air Force has attempted to operate, the Air Force has said. It was finished earlier this summer, after delays caused in part by the challenges of working in a remote desert, including sandstorms, locust swarms and difficulties in transporting supplies to the base in central Niger.
Several militant groups operate in the region, including the Islamic State in West Africa, which has emerged as a priority for U.S. Africa Command in the border area between Niger, Nigeria and Chad.
In 2018, Niger's government granted the U.S. authority to carry out armed drone flights in the country. The approval came soon after an October 2017 ambush in Niger, claimed by another Islamic State group, that left four U.S. soldiers dead.
Construction on Air Base 201 is ongoing, with full flying operations expected to begin later this year, the USAFE-AFAFRICA spokesman said.
Airmen are expected to do short-term assignments to support the mission when it's finally stood up.
Stars and Stripes reporter John Vandiver contributed to this story.