Thursday, 6 January 2022

Recap: UAE Air Force Armed Drones Over Tigray

By Stijn Mitzer

The last few months have seen a remarkable reversal of fortunes for the Ethiopian government. After a large Ethiopian Army offensive against Tigray forces in early October 2021 backfired spectacularly, the Tigray Defence Forces (TDF) commenced a counteroffensive that at one point even threatened the security of the capital Addis Ababa. [1] Possessing little in the way of air defence systems that can counter (armed) drones flying high overhead, Tigray forces eventually succumbed to the pressure of unabated drone warfare and withdrew to the borders of the Tigray Region in mid-December 2021. [2]

Ethiopia's arsenal of unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs) is meanwhile known to include at least nine Chinese-made Wing Loong Is, two Iranian Mohajer-6s and a number of Emirati VTOL UCAVs. [3] Two types of unarmed Israeli reconnaissance UAVs operate in support of these UCAVs. [4] Ethiopia received its first three Wing Loong Is from China in September 2021, later followed by the deployment of six more examples by the United Arab Emirates in November 2021. [5] [6] The acquisition of Turkish drones on the side of Ethiopia has also been reported, but remains unconfirmed. [7]
The deployment of UCAVs by the UAE on the side of the Ethiopian government has been speculated on ever since the beginning of the Tigray War in November 2020. [8] Nonetheless, the oft-repeated claim that several Emirati Wing Loong UCAVs operated out of Assab air base in Eritrea to undertake combat missions over Tigray in November 2020 has never been supported by evidence. This is not to say that such a combat deployment didn't occur, with a number of precision airstrikes against Tigray targets (such as ballistic missile launchers and large-calibre rocket systems) perhaps explained by their use.
The first confirmation that the United Arab Emirates had shipped combat drones to Ethiopia occured in the summer of 2021, when an Emirati-VTOL type of UCAV was seen being operated in the Maychew area of Ethiopia's Tigray Region. [9] These UCAVs are based on a type commercially-available drone that has been modified to carry two 120mm mortar rounds, and were previously deployed by the UAE to Yemen. [9] The unguided mortar rounds offer significantly less accuracy than the guided munitions deployed by the Wing Loong Is and Mohajer-6s however, and are of limited use against an enemy that relies on mobility rather than static defence lines.

A more substantial increase in quality of the United Arab Emirates' support to the government of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed would occur in November 2021, when the UAE deployed at least six Wing Loong Is along with their Emirati operators to Harar Meda air base. [6] Reports that the Ethiopian government could succumb to the threat posed by Tigray forces might have been the very reason for an immediate deployment of Wing Loong Is from the United Arab Emirates Air Force's (UAEAF) stocks to Ethiopia.

Two Wing Loong Is at Harar Meda air base in late November 2021. Image via Wim Zwijnenburg.

In order to better accomodate its rapidly expanding fleet of UCAVs, the Ethiopian Air Force (ETAF) has already begun constructing new infrastructure at Harar Meda air base, where the nine Wing Loong Is are currently stationed. [10] The new infrastructure is set to include a number of hangars that will likely eventually house the entirety of the armed drone fleet currently stationed at Harar Meda. The Wing Loong Is currently operate from a hangar adjacent to the premise and several Hardened Aircraft Shelters (HAS') dotted around the air base.

Recent satellite imagery of Harar Meda shows ongoing work to construct the new infrastructure. Also note the blue hangar currently used to house some of the Wing Loong Is and their ground control stations (GCS) in the lower-right corner.

Although the Ethiopian Air Force initially deployed its Wing Loong Is purely in the reconnaissance role, only later acquiring TL-2 air-to-ground missiles (AGMs) that enabled their use as armed drones, the Emirati Wing Loong Is came equipped with a sizeable arsenal air-to-ground ordnance from the onset. [11] Although these munitions are less effective against groups of Tigray fighters spread out in the field, especially considering each Wing Loong I can only be armed with two Blue Arrow 7s each, the TDF's rapidly dwindling arsenal of fire-support assets must have had a significant effect on its ability to wage conventional warfare and support its ongoing offensives. The psychological effect of drone strikes and the fact that its fighters could see the armed drones overhead but not target them must also have had an influence on the TDF's decision to abandon its offensive posture and retreat to the borders of Tigray.

A TDF T-72B1 tank destroyed by a drone strike. The munition that hit the tank caused a massive internal explosion that blew the T-72's turret away.

Just a month after the deployment of the six Emirati Wing Loong Is to Ethiopia, the UAE was already implicated in a series of airstrikes on civilian infrastructure in the town of Alamata in the Tigray Region. [12] The strikes resulted in the deaths of 42 civilians and the wounding of at least 150 as munitions struck the town's hospital and market. [13] [14] Careful analysis of the stricken areas in Alamata revealed the remains of a Chinese-made Blue Arrow 7 air-to-ground missile (AGM), which is the standard type of armament equipping Emirati Wing Loong UCAVs. Enough of the Blue Arrow 7 survived the impact to compare its remains with other Blue Arrow 7 remains encountered in Libya. The most identifiable component is the motor tailpipe located in the tail section of the Blue Arrow 7, which typically survives most impacts. Footage of the munition in Alamata can be seen here. [15]

The motor tailpipe of a Blue Arrow 7 AGM found in Alamata (left) and the remains of a Blue Arrow 7 (including the motor tailpipe) found in Libya (right).

Other remains of a Blue Arrow 7 AGM found in Alamata. The inserts show Blue Arrow 7 remains recovered in Libya.

[1] Ethiopia's Tigray crisis: Citizens urged to defend Addis Ababa against rebels
[4] Wing Loong Is Over Ethiopia: Chinese UCAVs Join The Battle For Tigray
[5] The UAE Joins The Tigray War: Emirati Wing Loong I UCAVs Deploy To Ethiopia 
[10] New Drone Infrastructure Emerges At Harar Meda Air Base  
[11] Ethiopia Acquires Chinese TL-2 Missiles For Its Wing Loong I UCAVs
[12] UAE Implicated In Lethal Drone Strikes In Tigray
[14] Ethiopia: Consecutive days airstrikes in Tigray’s Alamata kill 42 civilians, injure more than 150, cause massive destruction
[15] ደብዳብ ድሮናትን ነፈርትን ከተማ ኣላማጣ