Wednesday 10 November 2021

Ethiopia Acquires Chinese TL-2 Missiles For Its Wing Loong I UCAVs

By Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans
This website earlier reported on the acquisition of Chinese-made Wing Loong I unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs) by Ethiopia and their subsequent sighting over Mekelle, the capital of the Tigray Region. [1] [2] As the Tigray War appears to be slowly spiralling out of control for the Ethiopian government, the Ethiopian Air Force (ETAF) has now acquired weaponry for the three Wing Loong Is it purchased in mid-September 2021. The first batch of 50 TL-2 air-to-ground missiles arrived to Ethiopia on the 3rd of November. [3] [4]

The way through which this information was leaked is perhaps indicative of the situation currently unfolding in Ethiopia, as the cargo manifest and packaging list was actually published online. [3] Days earlier, Ethiopian government sources revealed that the country had bought 50 missiles for their Wing Loong I UCAVs from China. [4] The Ethiopian Airlines Boeing 777 cargo aircraft carrying the missiles was quickly identified by aircraft tracker Gerjon, whose work has been of paramount importance in documenting suspicious aircraft movements to war-thorn Ethiopia. [5]
Ethiopia had earlier deployed its Wing Loong I UCAVs as reconnaissance UAVs, using them to identify targets over the city of Mekelle. As the Wing Loong I flies much lower than Western UAV designs, this allowed residents of the city to film one of the drones on the 28th of October 2021. [2] Lacking aircraft that can deploy modern precision-guided munitions (save for one Su-25TK), the ETAF subsequently used Su-27 fighter aircraft armed with dumb bombs to engage these targets, leading to a number of civilian casualties without actually achieving the intended results. [6]

An Ethiopian Wing Loong I over Mekelle.

The TL-2 is a lightweight air-to-ground missile (AGM) that can be deployed by UCAVs, helicopters and even from a ground-based launcher. [7] The TL-2 uses the existing body of a man-portable air-defense system missile (MANPADS) to create a cheap AGM. Boasting a range of some 6 kilometres, the TL-2 uses semi-active laser guidance to find its way to the target. The accuracy with which it strikes it target is relatively poor, reported to within the ranges of two to ten metres depending on the method of guidance used. The light warhead of the TL-2 means that the intended target could survive without damage even when landing one metre away.

Contrary to most other UCAV designs in the same size class, the Wing Loong I has just one hardpoint under each wing for a total of two hardpoints. This severely limits the payload capacity and thus the number of targets each Wing Loong I can engage during a sortie. But what the Wing Loong I lacks in the number of hardpoints, it makes up for in the wide variety of weapon configurations it can carry. This also includes a double and even a quadruple launcher for the TL-2 AGM. 
Even though the quadruple launcher is not yet confirmed to be in use by the Wing Loong I (although it should be capable of carrying it), the use of the double TL-2 launcher would already double the amount of armament that can be deployed by Ethiopia's Wing Loong Is. While hugely increasing the drone's effectiveness, Ethiopia's initial acquisition of just 50 TL-2 AGMs means that each Wing Loong I can fly just a few sorties before armament stocks have been completely exhausted.

As the Tigray War is entering its second year, the advances of Tigray forces on the ground appear seemingly unstoppable, forcing Ethiopia to increasingly rely on its air force to inflict blows upon its enemy. The operations of three fully-armed Wing Loong Is are sure to help in this respect, pounding Tigray forces as they continue their march towards the capital Addis Ababa, a target now no longer unthinkable. However, the limited numbers of TL-2 AGMs acquired, with their short range and relatively poor accuracy (compared to contemporary weaponry), simply might not constitute the gamechanger the Ethiopian government is so desperately looking for.

[1] Wing Loong Is Over Ethiopia: Chinese UCAVs Join The Battle For Tigray
[2] Tigray War: Chinese-Made Armed Drones Spotted Over Mekelle
[6] Russian Su-27 Fighters Deployed As Bombers In Tigray War