Monday, 13 December 2021

New Drone Infrastructure Emerges At Harar Meda Air Base

By Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans
After we earlier reported on the deployment of at least six Emirati Wing Loong I unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs) to Ethiopia, satellite imagery now indicates that additional infrastructure for the operations of UCAVs is being constructed at Harar Meda air base. [1] [2] New tarmac and hangars are being erected next to the hangar from where Ethiopia's own fleet of three Wing Loong I UCAVs acquired from China in September 2021 are currently operating from. [3] One of these Wing Loong Is was already sighted on satellite imagery of Harar Meda in mid-November. [4]

The area where the construction is taking place was previously the Ethiopian Air Force's (ETAF) designated dumpsite for decommissioned aircraft. Parked here were some thirty MiG-21 fighter aircraft, eight Mi-24 attack helicopters, five An-12 transport aircraft and one Yak-40 and one Tu-154 airliner. All but the An-12s, Yak-40 and the Tu-154 have now been moved to several other locations on the air base to make way for the soon to be erected facilities. Efforts to remove the MiG-21s and Mi-24s appear to have started in October 2021, with construction commencing in early December.

Once construction is completed, the area is expected to become the hub for all U(C)AV operations at Harar Meda. The ETAF currently operates several Israeli-made Aerostar UAS and Chinese-made Wing Loong I UCAVs from this air base, with the Iranian Mohajer-6s still believed to be stationed at Semera Airport in north-east Ethiopia. [5] From Harar Meda, the Wing Loong Is have sufficient range to operate all over the Tigray Region, as was already demonstrated by the ETAF's use of Wing Loong Is to designate targets for Su-27 bombers over Mekelle. [6]

The expansion of Ethiopia's current U(C)AV infrastructure comes at a time when the Tigray Defence Forces (TDF) have given up much of their territorial gains attained over the past month. [7] After the Ethiopian Army's own offensive against Tigray forces in northern Ethiopia backfired spectacularly, the TDF commenced a counteroffensive that at one point even threatened the security of the capital Addis Ababa. [8] However, the constant attrition caused by UCAVs, meanwhile numbering at least eleven, appears to have had a significant psychological and materiel impact on TDF forces on the front line.

The 2nd of February 2021. The dump is still occupied by MiG-21s, Mi-24s and various types of transport aircraft.

The 2nd of November 2021. The MiG-21s and Mi-24 helicopters have been moved to clear space for new tarmac and hangars.

The 9th of December 2021. The first tarmac in front of the former aircraft dump has been laid.

The influx of various types of UCAVs might end up being the most decisive factor in saving the embattled Ethiopian government of Abiy Ahmed. While the TDF could previously fall back and try their chances on another front, the increasing number of these systems meanwhile available to the Ethiopian Air Force means that Tigray forces might soon have no place to run to anymore without being targeted. After the Libyan Civil War and the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh War, perhaps the Tigray War will soon be added to a quickly growing list of conflicts where the use of UCAVs proved decisive.

Special thanks to Gerjon.
[1] The UAE Joins The Tigray War: Emirati Wing Loong I UCAVs Deploy To Ethiopia
[3] Wing Loong Is Over Ethiopia: Chinese UCAVs Join The Battle For Tigray
[4] Satellite Images Show Ethiopia’s Expanding Drone Buildup
[6] Deadly Ineffective: Chinese-Made Wing Loong UAVs Designate Targets For Ethiopian Su-27 Bombers
[8] Ethiopia's Tigray crisis: Citizens urged to defend Addis Ababa against rebels