Saturday, 4 December 2021

Israeli Arms In Ethiopia: The TAR-21 Assault Rifle

By Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans
Though mostly operating weaponry purchased from countries like Russia, Ukraine and China, the Ethiopian National Defence Force (ENDF) has occassionally looked elsewhere for the acquisition of arms and equipment. This has included defence manufacturers of countries like Germany, the United Arab Emirates and Israel, whose products have been widely introduced with the ENDF. [1] [2] One such product is the 5.56mm IWI Tavor TAR-21 bullpup assault rifle, significant numbers of which would enter service with elite units of Ethiopia's security apparatus during the late 2000s.

Although it was a staunch supporter of apartheid South Africa throughout its existence, even aiding it in establishing a nuclear deterrent, Israel has proved a popular source of armament for many other African countries as well. Ethiopia first established military ties with Israel in the 1950s under Emperor Haile Sellassie I, and Ethiopian military cooperation with Israel continued even under the communist-socialist state that existed in Ethiopia from 1974 to 1991. During this era, the government of Mengistu maintained close relationships to both Arab countries and Israel, although the latter in near secrecy.

But only in recent years did the strong ties between Ethiopia and Israel also manifest in the delivery of military equipment. This had included Aerostar and WanderB unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), which are both now almost certainly deployed against rebellious Tigray forces fighting in the northern part of Ethiopia. [1] Another Israeli defence product in service with the ENDF is the Thunder infantry mobility vehicle (IMV), although this type has so far eluded public sightings during the Tigray War.
The most well-known type of Israeli armament in service with the Ethiopian military is undoubtedly the TAR-21 assault rifle. This is not the least through the existence of many photos on social media showing members of the Republican Guard posing with TAR-21s while flexing their muscles, confirming the use of both TAR-21s and steroids in these units. A less pretentious application has been the usage of the rifles by the personal protection detail (PPD) of the Ethiopian Prime Minister. The Republican Guard and PPD servicemembers are the only users of TAR-21s in Ethiopia.

The TAR-21 is a modern assault rifle that features an ejection port on both sides, so that it can be easily operated by both right-handed and left-handed people. The rifle was designed with use in urban operations in mind, a requirement that ultimately gave rise to its bullpup design. The TAR-21 has meanwhile entered service with more than 30 countries worldwide, a testament to its solid characteristics and high quality. The smaller Tavor X95 version has also been adopted by the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) as its main service rifle.

In Ethiopian service the TAR-21 is equipped with either of two sights and, more rarely, with a single-shot 40mm under-barrel grenade launcher. It should be noted that the grenade launcher only equips some of the rifles used by the Republican Guard, with PPD servicemembers having little need for such an accessory. Instead, TAR-21s used by the protection detail of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed often sport duct-taped magazines that allow for a faster reload in the heat of battle.

Bodyguards armed with TAR-21s guard former Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi in 2010.

As the Ethiopian military is in the meanwhile forced to scrounge the country for arms depots that could still have 1950s-era rifles or helmets in them, it is not unthinkable that modern arms like the TAR-21 will soon find their way to the conflict-stricken regions of Ethiopia as well. Likely held back for use with Republican Guard units guarding the capital Addis Ababa, the ENDF might soon no longer have the luxury of holding back anything, providing a rationale for their use against Tigray forces. Here they would join an increasingly diverse arsenal that meanwhile also includes newly-delivered weaponry sourced from China, the UAE and Iran.