Wednesday 17 November 2021

Satellite Images Show Ethiopia’s Expanding Drone Buildup

By Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans
After we first reported on the acquisition of three Wing Loong I unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs) by Ethiopia in mid-September, it took until early October before the type was first sighted in the skies over Tigray. [1] [2] While the Ethiopian military attemped to hide the acquisition of the three UCAVs by hastily moving them to a nearby hangar during their delivery to avoid their detection by prying eyes (an effort which nonetheless failed), the presence of Wing Loong Is at Harar Meda air base has now been revealed on satellite imagery as well. [1]
Although the imagery offers little in new findings except for confirming the exact location from where the Wing Loong Is operate, the fact that the drones are visible on commercial satellite imagery to begin with shows little care on the side of the Ethiopian Air Force (ETAF) to mask the actual operations conducted with these drones. The Ethiopian government had already clumsily revealed the delivery of Mohajer-6 UCAVs from Iran by publishing images showing Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed inspecting their ground control station (GCS) at Semera airport last August. [3]

While Ethiopia attempts to conduct drone warfare with a degree of secrecy, it is constantly revealing information with regards to what types it acquired and from where they're being operated at the same time. [4] Of course, it doesn't help either that the ETAF is now constructing more infrastructure for the operation of drones several hundred meters away from Dejen Aviation Engineering Industry (DAVI), where civilian aircraft mechanics work to overhaul the ETAF's aircraft and helicopters. The mechanics working here are a useful source of information for analysts like us.

A Chinese-made Wing Loong I UCAV at Harar Meda air base on the 2nd of November 2021.

The ground control station (GCS) and other associated equipment for the operation of drones is placed close to the runway. Note the same Wing Loong I in the top left corner.

The Wing Loong I's low flight ceiling means that the type can sometimes be seen from the ground as it flies over its mission area. There currently is information to suggest that Ethiopia's fleet of three Wing Loong I UCAVs has recently been strengthened by additional airframes of the same type. Rather than directly purchased from China, these drones are set to be operated over Ethiopia by another country that has recently directly intervened in the conflict. It doesn't seem implausible that these will soon show up on satellite imagery or video footage as well.

An Ethiopian Air Force Wing Loong I is seen as it flies over the capital of the Tigray Region Mekelle on the 28th of October 2021.

[1] Wing Loong Is Over Ethiopia: Chinese UCAVs Join The Battle For Tigray