Saturday, 13 November 2021

Deadly Ineffective: Chinese-Made Wing Loong UAVs Designate Targets For Ethiopian Su-27 Bombers

By Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans
Ethiopia's use of Su-27 fighter aircraft as bombers against targets in the Tigray Region could count on international condemnation for the numerous civilian casualties caused by the inaccurate strikes. In one instance, the dumb bombs dropped by a Su-27 missed their intended target by a kilometre away. [1] Originally designed as an interceptor and never upgraded to carry guided weaponry in Ethiopian service, the use of Su-27s (which's pilots were never trained to deploy bombs) to strike targets even as large as the Northern Command's headquarters had little chance of success to begin with.

To locate targets for the Su-27s to strike, the Ethiopian Air Force (ETAF) deployed its Chinese-made Wing Loong I unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs) over Mekelle. As the Wing Loong I has a much lower service ceiling than Western types, residents of the city managed to film one of the drones as it overflew the city of in late October. [2] The Wing Loong Is were likely on the lookout for activities at former ENDF military facilities and factories now in the hands of Tigray forces, which were then the target of airstrikes by Su-27s. [3] [4] [5]

As the Wing Loong Is until early November operated without any weaponry in Ethiopian Air Force service, the UCAVs could see the targets on the ground, but not actually engage them. The actual strike would follow some time later by Su-27s, often with terrible accuracy. It remains unknown why Ethiopia didn't acquire any weaponry for the Wing Loong Is when it acquired the drones in September, and claims that by the acquisition of UCAVs the Ethiopian Air Force is executing a calculated acquisition strategy for the next ten years seem to hold little ground in reality. [6]

An Ethiopian Air Force Su-27UB seen armed with four OFAB-250 bombs in June 2021.

The Su-27s meanwhile appear to have taken over some of the ground-attack sorties originally flown by the dozen or so MiG-23BNs that officially remain operational. The MiG-23BNs are the ETAF's dedicated fighter-bombers, while the Su-27s were meant to be solely used as interceptors. The old age of the MiG-23BN and their heavy usage during earlier stages of the Tigray War might mean that a part of the fleet is now permanently grounded. Two airframes have additionally been lost in crashes during the Tigray War, one on the 29th of November 2020 and another one on the 6th of December 2020. [7]
Much like the Su-27s, the MiG-23BNs too are incapable of deploying any modern PGMs, and the aircraft that remain operational are essentially limited to deploying a variety of unguided rockets and dumb bombs (including cluster bombs). Nonetheless, its pilots are actually trained for the deployment of air-to-ground ordnance, and are sure to deliver their ordnance with much more accuracy than their colleagues flying the Su-27. The use of Su-27s might thus be necessitated by a dwindling number of operational MiG-23BNs rather than a deliberate choice to deploy these alongside the ETAF's MiG-23BNs.

A Chinese-made Wing Loong I UCAV over Mekelle in late October 2021.

Ethiopia's recent purchase of armament for its Wing Loong I UCAVs could see a decline in the number of bomber missions flown by the Su-27s. However, considering the light warhead of the TL-2 AGMs Ethiopia purchased from China (making them ineffective at striking hardened targets), it is not unthinkable that Su-27 bombing sorties will continue for the time being. [8] But as Tigray forces continue their advance on Ethiopia's capital Addis Ababa, more pressing targets are surely at hand. One thing is certain, the conflict seems far from being over.

[1] Russian Su-27 Fighters Deployed As Bombers In Tigray War
[2] Tigray War: Chinese-Made Armed Drones Spotted Over Mekelle
[6] Wing Loong Is Over Ethiopia: Chinese UCAVs Join The Battle For Tigray
[7] List Of Aircraft Losses Of The Tigray War (2020-2021)
[8] Ethiopia Acquires Chinese TL-2 Missiles For Its Wing Loong I UCAVs