WASHINGTON (AFNS) -- The Defense Department's addition of an unmanned aerial vehicle and 80 Air Force troops to U.S. efforts supporting Nigeria's search for over 200 missing schoolgirls has turned the mission into an air operation, Army Col. Steve Warren, the director of Pentagon Press Operations, said May 22.
The UAV system and Air Force personnel were deployed not to Nigeria but to neighboring Chad under an agreement with the Chadian government, Warren said, because basing the air assets there, closer to the search area, allows the aircraft to spend more time overhead.
The Nigerian government has requested such assistance and, Warren said, "This is the third system that we've put into Chad in addition to (systems that have) been providing (intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) up until yesterday."
The coordinated air operation is using a mix of manned and unmanned assets as the situation dictates, he added.
"I don't know right now of any plans to send additional ISR assets, and all 80 Air Force personnel are not (yet) on the ground," Warren said, adding that there are no plans now for a U.S. military operation on the ground in Nigeria.
It's been five weeks since members of the terrorist group Boko Haram kidnapped the girls from the Government Secondary boarding school in the town of Chibok.
Boko Haram is a phrase in a language spoken in inland West Africa, according to academic linguistic texts, that translates figuratively to "Western education is a sin."
The Airmen are joining 16 military personnel from U.S. Africa Command who earlier this month joined an interdisciplinary team led by the State Department at the U.S. Embassy in Abuja, Nigeria.
On May 21, as required by the War Powers Resolution, President Barack Obama notified Congress of the deployment of Air Force personnel to Chad in a letter to the speaker of the House of Representatives and the president pro tempore of the Senate.
"These personnel will support the operation of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft for missions over northern Nigeria and the surrounding area," Obama said in the letter.
"The force will remain in Chad until its support in resolving the kidnapping situation is no longer required," he added.
"The team in Chad is there in support of one of our ISR assets -- an unarmed, unmanned aerial vehicle that is helping support the search for the students," Pentagon spokesman Army Lt. Col. Myles B. Caggins III told American Forces Press Service.
"The majority of the Air Force personnel are dedicated to the launch, recovery, and maintenance of the aircraft," Caggins added. "They have a small security detachment to round-out the team."
They are not infantry troops and will not conduct ground operations, he said.
"The weapons they deployed with are strictly for self-defense and local security at the airfield," Caggins added.
ISR is one of the key DOD contributions to the search, he noted, and U.S. operations are around-the-clock, including time for aircraft maintenance and recovery.
The missions will take place over northern Nigeria and the surrounding area, Caggins said.
"Flying these aircraft from Chad significantly increases search time over potential Boko Haram camps in Nigeria and surrounding countries," the DOD spokesman said, adding, "We're thankful for cooperation from the government of Chad and our international partners for this basing agreement."
On May 21, during a hearing on Boko Haram before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for African Affairs Amanda J. Dory said DOD officials are taking action to help the Nigerian government find the students and address the growing threat posed by Boko Haram.
Initial DOD efforts involve working with Nigerian security personnel to identify gaps and shortfalls and provide requested expertise and information, including ISR support, she told the panel.
"We're also working closely with the U.K., France and other international partners in Abuja to coordinate multilateral actions," Dory said.
"Our intent is to support Nigerian-led efforts to safely recover the girls," she added, "and help catalyze greater efforts to secure the population of Nigeria from the menace of Boko Haram."
If sustained security is to be achieved, Dory said, the government of Nigeria must develop and implement immediate and long-term solutions to problems created by the extremist group.
The Boko Haram threat has existed in its current form since 2009 but over the past several years has extended its geographic reach and increased the sophistication and lethality of its attacks, she explained.
"Along with other U.S. departments and agencies, DOD has been engaging for some time with the government of Nigeria to help build its capacity to respond," the deputy assistant secretary said.
Beginning in 2011, DOD used the State Department-led U.S.-Nigeria Bi-National Commission as a main forum to enhance counterinsurgency efforts and develop a civilian-centered approach to security, Dory said.
DOD supports creating a counter-IED and civil military operations capacity in the Nigerian army, she added, and it has supported creating a national-level intelligence-fusion capability to promote better information-sharing among Nigerian national-security entities.
In late April, DOD began working with Nigeria's newly created counterterrorism-focused ranger battalion.
In addition, DOD and the State Department are working closely to enhance border security along Nigeria's borders with Chad, Niger and Cameroon, to counter the Boko Haram threat, Dory told the panel.
The idea, she said, is to build border security capacity and promote better cooperation and communication among each country's security force to reduce the extremist group's operational space and safe havens.
In the meantime, the search for the students in Nigeria is ongoing, Caggins added, and the Nigerians are in the lead.
DOD, he said, continues to lend its unique assets and capabilities to help in the search.
"We'll continue to evaluate the resources we might bring to bear in support of the effort in close consultation with the Nigerian government," Caggins said.