Thursday, 28 October 2021

Tigray War: Chinese-Made Armed Drones Spotted Over Mekelle

By Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans

Some two weeks after this website first reported on the acquisition of Chinese-made Wing Loong I unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs) by Ethiopia, videographic evidence has now finally emerged that confirms the drone's presence in the skies of Ethiopia. [1] The video, taken in late October 2021, depicts a single Wing Loong I over the capital of the Tigray Region, Mekelle. [2] The Wing Loong I is the third UCAV type confirmed to have been acquired by Ethiopia after the country earlier purchased Iranian Mohajer-6 and Emirati VTOL unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs).
Information received by the authors' combined with a suspicious cargo flight to Harar Meda air base in Ethiopia from Chengdu, China, where the Wing Loong I is manufactured, point towards the delivery of at least three of such systems to Ethiopia in September 2021. [1] The main interest in the system for Ethiopia would be directed to the deployment of precision-guided munitions (PGMs), which the Ethiopian Air Force has so far been mostly lacking. Taking delivery of two Mohajer-6 UCAVs with PGMs from Iran in August 2021, their career in Ethiopia appears to have been unsuccessful so far, with both systems currently grounded owing to poor operational performance. [3]

The Wing Loong I is currently China's most commercially successful UCAV design, so far confirmed to have been acquired by at least seven export clients worldwide. [4] The type has meanwhile been superseded by the more capable Wing Loong II, which features a host of improvements including two hardpoints under each wing for double the weapons payload. However, the Wing Loong II's high acquisition price (believed to approach some 15 million USD) compared to the earlier Wing Loong I as well as contemporary designs has ensured that the latter still enjoys success on the export market to this day.

The cargo aircraft that delivered the Wing Loong Is to Ethiopia is believed to have been An-124 'UR-82029' of Ukraine's Antonov Airlines, which was sighted by aircraft tracker Gerjon on satellite imagery of Harar Media air base on the 17th of September 2021. [5] During this particular flight, UR-82029 started its journey out of Chengdu (where the Wing Loong I is produced) before making a brief stopover in Islamabad, ultimately landing at its final destination of Harar Meda air base some time later. [6]

It was already in early September 2021 that the acquisition of the Wing Loong I was first hinted at after a model of the UCAV was prominently displayed during an interview with the commander of the Ethiopian Air Force. The participation of Chinese UCAVs in the Tigray War has already been speculated at since the start of the conflict in November 2020. Frequently said to have included the deployment of Wing Loong UCAVs operated by the UAE out of Assab air base in Eritrea, no evidence has so far been brought forward that supports these claims however.

In light of the recent purchases of UCAVs by Ethiopia it is likely only a question of time before Tigray forces will feel the increased pressure they bring to bear on the battlefield. Although the Wing Loong I has been associated with numerous technical defects and a higher number of crashes compared to contemporary types while in service with their foreign operators, they are certain to benefit Ethiopia more than the Mohajer-6s that still remain grounded some three months after their arrival. Ethiopia's drone war is certain to provide Ethiopia and the rest of the world with information on the reliability of Israeli, Chinese, Iranian, and Emirati UAVs. For this reason alone it is important to document the events currently unfolding in Ethiopia.

[1] Wing Loong Is Over Ethiopia: Chinese UCAVs Join The Battle For Tigray
[2] ን6ይ ግዘ ደብዳብ ነፋሪት ኣብ ከተማ መቐለ
[3] Information received by the authors from a mechanic working for Ethiopia's Dejen Aviation Engineering Industry (DAVI)
[4] An International Export Success: Global Demand For The Bayraktar TB2 Reaches All Time High