Thursday 2 September 2021

Made In China: Ethiopia’s Fleet Of Chinese UAVs

By Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans

In addition to operating a number of UAVs sourced from Israel and even Iran, at least one more country has delivered unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to Ethiopia in recent years. This country is of course China, whose readily available and inexpensive UAVs have meanwhile conquered large parts of Africa. Interestingly, these more often than not have consisted of commercial models utilised for a wide variety of military and civilian tasks rather than types specifically designed for military service.

That said, the participation of Chinese Wing Loong II unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAV) conducting operations on behalf of Ethiopia during the Tigray War has long been speculated by many. Supposedly operated by the United Arab Emirates out of Assab air base in neighbouring Eritrea, or acquired and operated by Ethiopia according to some others, no evidence has so far been brought forward that points towards the involvement of Chinese UCAVs during the Tigray War however. [1]

The actual inventory of Chinese drones in Ethiopian service is slightly less spectacular, and perhaps even decidedly lacklustre, consisting of a number of commercially available models sourced from a number of different companies. Rather than entering service with the Ethiopian National Defence Force (ENDF), the actual recipient of these drones appears to have been the Ethiopian Federal Police (EPF). While arguably less imposing than their military brethens, the operation of medium-sized UAVs by police forces is notable, even more so when it occurs in the African contingent.
Prior to the drone's delivery to Ethiopia, Ethiopian police officers attended a drone piloting training course organised by the Chinese Ministry of Public Security at an aviation school in Beijing in late 2018. Besides learning how to operate and maintain the drones, the attendants were also demonstrated several applied drone usages in scenarios such as rescue, fire emergency and reconnaissance as part of their training programme. [2]

A Chinese instructor demonstrates the features of the a ZT-3V VTOL UAS

Undoubtedly owing to the kind of operational scenarios Ethiopian police officers are liable to find themselves in throughout the mountainous country with little existing drone infrastructure, all types acquired by the EPF are vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) models. For increased efficiency during flight, at least two of the models can switch to horizontal flight mode after taking off vertically. [3] Several smaller VTOL types were purchased as well, although little is known regarding their subsequent use in the ranks of the Ethiopian police.

Presumably prompted by a lack of more suitable drone types for use during the early stages of the Tigray War, several of the drones were transferred to the Ethiopian Air Force in November 2020. [4] Interestingly, rather than quietly accepting the systems into service, the ENDF instead presented the drones in front of a news crew as indigenously-designed systems rather than commercially obtainable models from China. [4] The exact reasoning behind this cheap propaganda stunt is unclear, but was likely aimed at the domestic audience that has little reason to doubt the regime's narrative, and could use an assurance of Ethiopian military capabilities.

Whether called 'indigenously-designed' or simply commercially obtainable, a major drawback of the drones is the quality of their camera systems. Although this is to be expected from designs that cost a fraction of the price of their military counterparts, and would likely have posed little of a problem in police service, it is more likely to pose a hindrance in service with the ENDF. Practically speaking, it allows them to cover a smaller area while operating at a lower altitude, exposing them to ground fire from TPLF forces.
Though the presence of armed Chinese drones in action over Tigray remains a point of contention to some, the reality is in fact much different,with several commercially obtained models constituting the sole contribution to Ethiopia's unmanned fleet. Currently engaged in a conflict where UCAVs could play a decisive role, it is not unthinkable that Ethiopia will look to China once again for UAVs, this time in a more offensive role. Given the current state of Ethiopia's fresh civil war, a tender for a new type of UCAV to enter service on a rapid basis might well be on the way already.
[2] Ethiopian police officers attend drone piloting training program in Beijing
[4] Chief Commander of the Ethiopian Air Force, Maj. Gen. Yilma Merda.#Ethiopia #Tigray(Courtesy of EBC)