The war that Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and President Isaias Afwerki have been waging against Tigray for over a year has been fuelled by drones provided by Turkey, China and Iran. Arming by these states has been openly discussed – but not the airlift of the weapons themselves.
- China has been reportedly provided Wing Loong drone to Addis.
- Turkey has supplied drones to Ethiopia after a visit to Ankara on 18 August 2021 by Prime Minister Abiy.
- In August 2021 it was reported that “Ethiopia has managed to secure a hasty contract with Iran for the delivery of a number of Mohajer-6 unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs).”
- Israel is apparently one of the outside powers that has refused to provide military drones to Ethiopia.
The drone airlift
One of those who has tracked the flights bringing in the drones is a Tweeter who calls himself Gerjon_. @Gerjon
He has kindly supplied these statistics, which cover 114 flights since he began tracking the flights in August 2021. Flights prior to this date are not included.
“97 flights from the UAE (mainly Sweihan Air Base and Abu Dhabi International Airport).
9 flights from Iran (origin unknown). Besides this, I know of the following suspicious Ethiopian Airlines flights: 3 cargo flights by Ethiopian from Tekirdag Corlu in Turkey, 3 cargo flights from Abu Dhabi, 1 from Dalian, China (the one for which freight papers were leaked).
Finally, I know of 1 flight from Chengdu, China by Abakan Air (for Aviacon Zitotrans).”
The confidential newsletter, African Intelligence has this to add:
“In addition to the Turkish UAVs, Addis Ababa has also procured Chinese combat drones. At least three units of the Wing Loong model were delivered to the EAF in September from factories in Chengdu. This acquisition follows the purchase of Iranian – Mohajer 6 – and Emirati UAVs, the latter of which have been in service since late last year.”
International reaction and an assessment of their impact on the war
Jeffrey Feltman U.S. Special Envoy for the Horn of Africa publicly complained about the Ethiopians launching a “a bombing campaign while using drones from questionable sources, including reportedly from U.S. adversaries.” By this one can assume Feltman means Iran.
The United States is not alone in making these complaints. Egypt has taken up the issue, with Turkey.
I am not a military expert, but an interesting assessment of the effectiveness of the drones has been provided by Sajid Nadeem.
“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.”
Ethiopia Tigray War: Why drones are not proving effective
NOVEMBER 14, 2021 BY SAJID NADEEM
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 analyse 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?
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.
 Africa Intelligence, Addis set to deploy Turkish combat drones against Tigray rebels’ offensive, 15 November 2021