Monday 20 September 2021

Mobilised For War: Ethiopia’s Russian 2S19 Msta SPGs

By Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans
The Ethiopian military operates a number of Russian weapon systems that otherwise have found little success on the export market. One of these, the Su-25TK 'Tankovy Buster', has already been covered in an earlier article on this site. Another system is the 2S19 Msta self-propelled gun (SPG), around a dozen of which are currently in service with the Ethiopian National Defence Force (ENDF). Following the outbreak of hostilities in Ethiopia's northern Tigray region, they are now amongst the many systems deployed to combat against the TDF.

Ethiopia became the first export customer of the 2S19 Msta when it acquired at least twelve systems in 1999. Much like the Su-25TKs, Ethiopia's Mstas were acquired as emergency wartime purchases during the Eritrean–Ethiopian War which raged from May 1998 to June 2000. In order to speed up their delivery to Ethiopia, the 2S19s came directly from Russian Army stocks.
At around the same time, Eritrea too acquired its first SPGs. Rather than following Ethiopia in its quest to buy one of the most advanced SPGs available at that time, Eritrea had to settle on second-hand 122mm 2S1 Gvozdikas from Bulgaria instead. [1] These could engage targets out to ranges of 15km only, a meagre distance when compared to the 25km range of the 2S19. Having said that, neither the 2S19 nor the Su-25TK ultimately provided Ethiopia with the military breakthrough it was hoping for.
At the time of their delivery to Ethiopia, the 2S19s constituted the most modern SPG in service on the African continent. Once in service, the Mstas were a huge improvement over the North Korean SPGs previously in use with the ENDF. These consisted of a 122mm D-30 howitzer fitted to a tracked (APC-based) chassis, with little improvements over a towed D-30 howitzer except for increased mobility and ammunition stowage.

A North Korean 122mm 'M-1977' SPG in service with the Ethiopian Army during the Eritrean-Ethiopian War. These SPGs have since been retired and scrapped

A 130mm M-46 field-gun mounted on the chassis of a ATS-59 artillery tractor. Several of such DIY conversion were produced to supplement the North Korean SPGs in service and hastily put to use against the Eritreans

After seeing heavy action during the Eritrean-Ethiopian War, pounding Eritrean troop concentrations alongside North Korean SPGs and 122mm BM-21 Grad MRLs, the 2S19s were to see action once again when in November 2020 Tigrayans rebelled against the central government in Addis Ababa. Taking over bases located all throughout the Tigray region, Tigray forces quickly armed themselves with heavy weaponry, even including large-calibre MRLs, guided rockets and ballistic missiles. In response, the ENDF was deployed to quell the rebellion. This also included the 2S19s, which have been seen moving around the frontlines on flatbed trucks on several occasions.

Unlike the Ethiopian Air Force, which is almost entirely self-sufficient in the maintenance and overhaul of its aircraft but also the training of its pilots, it appears that the Ethiopian Army still relies on Russian instructors for its 2S19 SPGs to some extent. It is unknown if their presence in Ethiopia is related to training Ethiopian crews or maintenance, or perhaps a combination of the two. Russian military instructors operate all throughout Africa, and their fondness of posing for the cameras is often the reason why images of Russian equipment in service with African militaries are leaked online.

The purchase of at least a dozen 2S19 Mstas from Russia in the late 1990s would be the last known acquisition of SPGs by the Ethiopian Army. Rather than investing in more 2S19 SPGs, the Ethiopian artillery arsenal was to see its largest upheaval in capabilities ever through the acquisition of a number of weapon systems from China. These have so far included 155mm AH-1 towed howitzers, 300mm AR2 MRLs, 300mm A200 guided rockets and even M20 SRBMs. [2] [3] In an attempt to further boost its artillery capabilities, Ethiopia also called on its indigenous weapon industry for the rehabilitation of several systems already in service and the mating of 122mm D-30 howitzers to trucks, creating a cheap but highly mobile self-propelled howitzer. Several dilapidated 122mm Grad launch systems were also given a new life by their installation onto new trucks. Yet another project entails the conversion of some BMP-1 IFVs to mortar carriers by the Bishoftu Automotive Industry. It is unknown if any of these projects have progressed beyond prototype status, and it is entirely possible that each has remained limited to the production of a few examples only.

The 2S19 was and remains an exotic piece of military equipment in this part of the world. Acquired at a time when Ethiopia was desperately looking for any type of modern military equipment that could give it an edge over its mortal foe of Eritrea, the Mstas have soldiered on long enough to participate in another conflict, against another enemy. Ethiopia finds itself facing a surprisingly comparable situation during the Tigray War, two decades hence.  This time the necessities of conflict have led it not to Russian but Iran, from which it acquired Mohajer-6 UCAVs. Whether this purchase will sate war's thirst for new equipment remains to be seen however, and the 2S19 Mstas might soon find themselves alongside a variety of weaponry from exotic sources.

[2] From Friend To Foe: Ethiopia’s Chinese AR2 MRLs