Wednesday 11 August 2021

Iranian Mohajer-6 Drones Spotted In Ethiopia

By Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans

A sudden violent outbreak of civil war in Ethiopia's northern Tigray region has thrown the nation into turmoil. After years of uneasy peace with its northern neighbour, Ethiopia suddenly finds itself at war with an unexpected foe equipped with the very same armament it stockpiled in preparation for a conventional war with Eritrea. With the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) making steady gains and government forces seemingly unable to stem the tide, the country is now frantically looking for anything to change its fortunes. In so doing, it has found support in more than one unlikely ally of opportunity. Most recently, it appears Ethiopia has managed to secure a hasty contract with Iran for the delivery of a number of Mohajer-6 unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs).

The apparent delivery of Iranian UCAVs to Ethiopia is highly notable, as the country also maintains a close relationship with Israel and is a frequent importer of Israeli armament and other military services such as training. In fact, Ethiopia's inventory of unmanned aerial vehicles previously consisted almost entirely of Israeli systems like the Aerostar UAS and WanderB mini-UAS. [1] The current service status of these UAVs is unclear however, and the fact that none of these can be armed likely caused Ethiopia to look for other sources for the acquisitions of UCAVs. Contrary to popular expectations, this source appears to have been Iran rather than Turkey or China.

After seemingly having arrived at Ethiopia's Semara airport in north-eastern Ethiopia on the 1st of August, the drones' Ground Control Station (GCS) was then pictured as prime minister Abiy Ahmed visited the base not more than two days later. [2] [3] Satellite imagery revealed that at least two UAVs and an associated GCS were delivered, potentially for evaluation before making a larger purchase. [4] Alternatively, the small numbers seen so far could be the result of the short notice on which the delivery has taken place and the relatively small numbers of Mohajer-6 UAVs readily available. Of course, the possibility remains that more UAVs have already been delivered, but that they have simply been distributed over several airbases.

Identification of the UAVs in question posed something of a challenge. Though initial reports suggested the Chinese Harrier Hawk II Air Sniper (Yaoying II) or the Wing Loong II, potentially the same examples that have been deployed in neighbouring Eritrea by the UAE, the dimensions and distinctive shape of the drone on satellite imagery significantly narrowed the field and decisively eliminated this possibility. Complicating matters however, is the fact that no usable ground imagery is as of yet available, and the market of possible providers has become wide and diverse. Though the satellite imagery confirms the Mohajer-6 to be a very likely candidate, the identifying factor thus became the associated GCS, which was imaged more clearly. 
Externally, the vehicle forms a clear (if not exact, presumably due to iterative improvements) match to other Iranian GCS both in its layout and its antenna set. Its mobility stems from a distinctively coloured Mercedes-Benz truck, staple of the Iranian military, and two doors each leading to their own separate control rooms are also a familiar sight. Externally, the distinctive white antenna featured on all Iranian GCS is perhaps the most significant point of recognition, with the communications dish apparently of a new type. 

Inside, the Iranian origin of the vehicle becomes even more obvious. One screen appears to show the view from one of the drone's FLIR cameras, and the layout and precise display of the information is nearly identical to that known from modern Iranian UAVs. Two indicators showing the orientation of the vehicle are a particularly unmistakable match.

What is more, LCD screens are placed in control pannels that feature the same buttons and dials known from Iranian footage of the Mohajer-6's GCS. Though the computer screens might seem somewhat different because of their thick housing in the image below, other Iranian GCS in fact feature that very same housing. Even the rather stunning fact that the computers appear to run Windows 7 is a clue pointing in the direction of Iran, which is known have similarly used Windows XP in the Mohajer-4's GCS computers. [5]

Though the clear parallels with Iranian technology rule out various countries that have been suggested as suppliers, one might note that some Iranian drone technology was developed from Chinese drones, thus leaving the Chinese as a possibility. While many of the facts (including the desert camoed Mercedes truck) point in another direction, perhaps the most decisive reasons why this option is eliminated are because from what is known of Chinese GCS they are actually arranged quite differently, and in fact no Chinese drone matches both the dimensions and shape of the satellite imagery of the UAVs in question.

Drone left, image overlay right. Image by Planet Labs.

The Mohajer-6 UCAV is itself the latest design in the Mohajer-series of UAVs. First unveiled in 2017, the Mohajer-6 entered mass production a year later and has meanwhile entered service with the three branches of Iran's Revolutionary Guards', with several even having been given to Iraq's Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF). [6] The manufacturer of the system claims an operating range of 200km and an effective payload of up to 40kg of ordnance, which would consist of two to four Ghaem-1, 5 or 9 precision-guided munitions (PGMs) respectively. It couples these lightweight capabilities with an endurance of 12 hours and a maximum flight altitude of around 5.500 metres. [7] For its target acquisition and reconnaissance capabilities, the Mohajer-6 uses an EOAS-I-18A FLIR turret. [8]

Given the large variety of UCAV platforms available nowadays, the decision to opt for the Mohajer-6 is a curious one. With its low flight ceiling the type is vulnerable to ground fire, whereas the low quality of its FLIR turret and the fact that the drone itself is largely unproven in combat could result in poor efficacy. What is more, with the low numbers known to have been produced so far it remains to be seen if they can be delivered in large enough quantities to turn the tide in Ethiopia's worsening conflict. 
Competing options which lack these downsides are a UCAV systems like the Turkish Bayraktar TB2. Known to have turned the tide in more than one conflict of the recent past, most notably during Operation Spring Shield in Syria in February 2020, against the Russian and UAE-backed Libyan National Army in Libya and during the Nagorno-Karabakh War of 2020. If the Mohajer-6s spotted on Semara airbase turn out to have been for evaluation, or even if the total number received is indeed limited, such an acquisition may well still be an option. 

Special thanks to Wim Zwijnenburg.
[1] Ethiopia army buys UAVs from BlueBird
[5] Look inside the control point of the Iranian drone Mohajer-4
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