July 19, 2024

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Ethiopia Tigray War: Why drones are not proving effective

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Ethiopian PM Abiy Ahmad seen at Semera airport in August 2021 with a drone GCS in the background

It is almost a year since the deadly war in Ethiopia began. The war entered a new phase in July 2021. While Tigray was still under siege from the Ethiopian government then, Tigray forces decided to enter Ethiopia’s Amhara and Afar regions. Since July 2021, the Ethiopian government has made large weapon purchases. Most experts agree that Ethiopia has bought combat drones from more than one country. Despite the purchase of these UAVs, Ethiopian Federal and Regional Forces have not been able to push Tigray forces out of Amhara and Afar region. Let us analyze the reason behind that.

Some credible social media accounts and websites that monitor cargo and other planes have disclosed that from July till November, dozens of suspicious cargo flights were seen between UAE, Turkey, Iran, Azerbaijan, China, and Ethiopia. Most of these flights were not registered in Ethiopian civil aviation records. It is being said that through these cargo flights, drones and other weapons were transported to Ethiopia from these countries. Several experts have confirmed the presence of Iranian Mohajer 6 and Chinese Wing Loong 1 drones in Ethiopia. In August 2021, Ethiopian state media shared pictures of Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmad from Semera airport in the Afar region of Ethiopia. In the pictures, at least one drone GCS (Ground Control Station) was spotted in the background, which most experts said was of Mohajer 6 Iranian drones. Some sources talk about the presence of Turkish drones in Ethiopia, too though it lacks credible evidence. Why is the Iranian Mohajer 6 and Chinese Wing Loong 1 drones could not deliver?

Picture of a drone flying over Tigray capital Mekelle, shared by Tigray TV at the end of October 2021. Experts identified it as Chinese Wing Loong 1.

Iranian Mohajer 6 drones are not as widely battle-tested as other combat drones like Turkish Tb-2 or Chinese Wing Loong 1 and 2, and their low ceiling flight makes them vulnerable to strikes from the ground. That is why we did not see any effective use of these drones in the Ethiopian conflict so far. Considering that Tigray forces are in possession of short-range anti-aircraft weapons like IGLA MANPAD and ZU 23-2 anti-aircraft guns, Iranian Mohajer 6 drones could not be used extensively by the Ethiopian air force.

Chinese Wing Long 1 drone was spotted flying over Mekelle city of Tigray a few days ago. But reportedly, Wing Loong 1 was being used for target locating and helping SU-27 fighters to hit the target. Does the Ethiopian government have guided munitions for these newly purchased Wing Loong 1 drones? Ethiopia has reportedly received a shipment of TL-2 guided munitions for mounting them on Wing Loong 1 drones. But the delivery arrived only last week. Before that, Chinese Wing Loong 1 was mainly used to help Ethiopian air force bombers locate a target. In the coming days, the Ethiopian air force could intensify its Wing Loong 1 for precision strikes.

Effective use of combat drones depends on several factors, including the quality of the drone itself in terms of precisely locating and hitting the target, skilled operators, and guided munitions. Ethiopia is a new operator of combat UAVs, and it is in the process of improving its drone use capabilities. Ethiopia will take some time for its newly purchased combat drones to make a difference on the battlefield. Ethiopian Mig 23 bombers and Su-27 interceptors lack precision striking capability, and that is why the airstrikes so far could not prove to be a game-changer in this conflict.