Friday 20 August 2021

Missed Opportunities: Ethiopia’s MALE UAV Programme

By Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans
As new information on the delivery of Iranian Mohajer-6 UCAVs to Ethiopia continues to come to light, their deployment to the country has yet to bring about a reversal of fortunes for the Ethiopian National Defence Force (ENDF). Largely unproven and equipped with subsystems (including its FLIR camera and munitions) of inferior quality than found on contemporary UCAVs from China and Turkey, it seems unlikely the Mohajer-6 will end up as the crucial asset that could finally turn the Tigray War into Ethiopia's favour.
Owing to the significant successes obtained by the Bayraktar TB2 over Syria, Libya and Nagorno-Karabakh, Turkey was considered to be the most likely supplier of UCAVs to Ethiopia prior to the delivery of the Mohajer-6s. Turkey has historically enjoyed warm ties with the country, which were once again reaffirmed by Prime Minister Abiy's visit to Ankara in mid-August 2021. Even though these strong ties have never resulted in any arms purchases from Turkey, it is a little known fact that a Turkish company is believed to have once played an instrumental role in Ethiopia's own indigenous medium-altitude long-endurance (MALE) UAV programme.

Launched around 2010, this highly promising project, which was known under the name of Negash, has managed to evade the attention of most military analysts worldwide. This is not in the least part due to the project's cancellation some five years after its inception, essentially relegating the endeavour to the annals of obscure arms history. As a result, many details surrounding the project remain largely unknown even to this day. The little information that is available unfortunately does much to further complicate the overall picture.

The Turkish company responsible for its design is believed to have been called 'Milyaz', which appears just as elusive as the drone itself. The few photos of the system reveal a sleek design somewhat reminiscent of the Russian Kronstadt Orion UAV, albeit designed some ten years before the latter's inception. A large FLIR turret of unknown origin occupies the front section of the fuselage and only the nose gear appears retractible, as is also the case on the Bayraktar TB2.

Similarly unknown is whether the drone was purely meant as a reconnaissance UAV or if a weaponised variant was also planned at some point. In the latter capacity it could possibly have carried one reasonably hefty munition under each wing, though the scarcity of real information on the topic means that the prospective payload capacity cannot be determined. Similarly, without access to details on its propulsion and takeoff weight its operational range and flight ceiling can only be guessed at.

While the Negash project ultimately went nowhere, DAVI continued with the design of small unmanned systems for reconnaissance purposes on its own accord. Most of these designs had more in the way of DIY (Do-it-yourself) hobby projects rather than systems fit for military service and had little chance of adoption by the Ethiopian Air Force. Perhaps unsurprisingly, nearly all UAVs ultimately suffered the same fate as their more realistic brethen: project cancellation.

Though Ethiopia from time to time claims breakthroughs in drone production, any realistic aspirations of building up an indigenous UAV production capability appear to have died with the Negash project. Nevertheless, the Turkish link may prove valuable once more after Prime Minister Abiy's visit to Turkey in August. With the ENDF desperately looking for an asset to stem the TPLF's advance, Turkish drones such as the TB2 might be the perfect candidate due to its rapid availability and attractive pricing. All the same, there's little doubt that the missed chance at gaining an indigenous capability in this field must sting to some, especially as Ethiopia's fresh civil war continues to turn further against government forces.
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