New Airbus high resolution satellite imagery from November 2021 now confirms the presence of Chinese Wing Loong drones in Ethiopia. These drones appear to have been delivered recently to the military airport of Harar Meda, south of Ethiopia’s capital of Addis Ababa. Since the outbreak of the conflict between the Tigray Defence Force, a constellation of armed groups, and defected federal forces based in the north of the country, and central government, there has been much speculation over the use of armed drones by Ethiopia’s armed forces . This blog will reveal a new armed drone now confirmed to be present and share an update on other drone developments in Ethiopia.
Despite claims made last year of Chinese drones flown by the United Arab Emirates (UAE) from a base in Eritrea, no proof was found of these drones were actually deployed over Ethiopia. Later in 2021, it was revealed, based on social media posts and satellite imagery from Planet, that Ethiopia is flying Iranian Mohajer-6 armed drones at Semera , a newly constructed airbase in the east of the country.
According to various informal sources, the drones went out of operation for a brief period, caused by malfunctioning, but new high resolution satellite imagery provided by Planet seems to indicate these drones were on the tarmac again in September and October 2021. Though the resolution is not optimal, length and wingspan fit the size of the Mohajer-6.
In the meantime, other sightings seem to point towards the weaponization of commercial drones with mortar grenades. Photos shared with the author show people wearing Ethiopian army military uniforms working on commercial drones. We have not been able to geolocate these images though the context makes it a credible claim, as the landscape on the photos resembles characteristics of the Ethiopian environmental features. Follow-up reporting by Oryx based on these images point towards possible Emirati involvement, as similar constructions with mortar grenades were used in Yemen by the UAE-backed forces and seem to have Chinese origin, although that is not yet confirmed.
Despite all earlier rumours, there was no confirmation of Chinese armed drones, until an interview surfaced with Ethiopian Air Force commander Yilma Merdassa, first reported by the Oryx blog, who stated that Ethiopia would be acquiring Chinese drones, while having a statue of a Wing Loong I drone in front of him. Following unconfirmed reports – based on leaked information combined with meticulous flight tracking of cargo planes arriving from China by Twitter User @Gerjon_ indicated that TL-1 Air-to-Surface missiles, to be used on drones, were shipped to Ethiopia.
In early November, photos published online, allegedly taken in Mekelle, located in the Tigray province, show a Wing Loong I drone. Though the location and source could not be verified, this was a first indication Chinese drones were already flying over Tigray. Yet actual proof from the ground was missing. According to various sources, the main bases of the drones would likely be in Harar Meda, the military airport south of Addis Abeba. In early September, construction began of an apron south of the airport at a blue hangar. We made a timelapse with Planet Skysat imagery to show the progress of this operation, that is a clue that this building could see a new purpose.
New rumours also indicated a possible sale of Turkey Bayraktar TB-2 drones to Ethiopia and an unconfirmed sighting of this drone early November. However, convincing evidence from either photos on the ground or satellite imagery is not yet presented.
As the rumours on the possible use of the Wing Loong by the Ethiopian Air Force used increased online, we ordered several images from Airbus of Harar Meda to see if these drones would show up there. We found a first hit on November 2, 2021, that fits with the measurements of a Wing Loong, namely a wingspan of 14 meter and a length of 9 meter, standing outside the blue hangar. Another Airbus satellite images taken on November 11, this time a bit blurrier, shows a drone with the same size south-west of the hangar.
The export and use of armed drones to Ethiopia raises serious questions, considering the many allegations of violations of international law by the Ethiopian army. With good reason the US imposed an arms embargo and the European Parliament has demanded an EU arms embargo against Ethiopia. Last year China joined the Arms Trade Treaty, which obliges exporting states to do a proper risk assessment of the likelihood that the receiving state could use unmanned combat aerial vehicles to violate international humanitarian and human rights law, or that it would endanger peace and security. Considering the multiple reports of airstrikes against civilian targets and other abuses, one wonders how China can justify the export of armed drones to Ethiopia in the context of the ATT. We also see how Ethiopia, facing pressure from the growing success by the TDF, is eagerly seeking more drone power. Not only with military drones from various origins, but also actively seeking the use of commercial drones to be armed and used. Ethiopia could very well become a new hotbed of drone use, while the question remains if the increase of these lethal precision capabilities will limit civilian casualties, or just add another deadly tool that can be easily misused.