Drones with European components significantly impact Ethiopian conflict

Satellite image of Bayraktar TB2 drone at Harar Meda air base, Ethiopia:  Credit: Pax.

It is now widely known that Ethiopia’s Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed Ali, has depended on the use of military drones to turn the tide in a bloody internal conflict waged against Tigrayan rebels. Fighting began in November 2020 after the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) declared the nation’s general elections to be illegitimate. The elections were scheduled to be held in August 2020 but were postponed by the Ethiopian government until 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The New York Times has stated that “Abiy has built his drone arsenal by tapping the sympathy of foreign autocrats and a booming segment of the global arms trade.”

The impact of drones in the conflict has been dramatic, fully reversing the southward offensive of Tigrayan forces which had been rapidly advancing on the city of Debre Birhan, less than 150 km from the capital Addis Ababa. Despite successfully halting the Tigrayan drive south, the Ethiopian government has now been forced to soften its previous stance against entering peace negotiations. This is partially due to the immense strain the conflict has placed on the nation’s economy in addition to international diplomatic pressure including ongoing mediation efforts from the African Union. The two sides are now observing an uneasy ‘humanitarian truce’ declared on 25th March this year. Exact details on the nature of the ceasefire are decidedly scarce but it is clear that it remains far from a formally agreed and lasting peace agreement. William Davison, a senior analyst for Ethiopia at Crisis Group, a regional conflict resolution organisation, has stated that “It is not yet clear that either the federal or Tigray authorities are willing to make the necessary concessions to make this peace process work.”

Ethiopia’s Diverse but Deadly Arsenal of Drones

The Ethiopian Prime Minister, a Nobel Peace Prize winner for his efforts in resolving border conflicts with neighbouring Eritrea, has repeatedly shown himself to be eager to purchase military drones from several different countries since the conflict began. Wim Zwijnenburg, a researcher for the peace organisation Pax, having analysed a range of satellite imagery and other evidence, has concluded that the Ethiopian government operates a diverse drone fleet including the Chinese Wing Loong, the Turkish Bayraktar-TB2 and the Iranian Mohajer-6. Whilst some of the Wing Loong drones may have been purchased directly from China for surveillance purposes, it is also likely, but not confirmed, that several were supplied to Ethiopia by the Government of the United Arab Emirates who also possess the Wing Loong. The Wing Loong, of all the drone types mentioned, has the longest range and has provided the Ethiopian government with the ability to strike even the Tigrayan Capital of Mekelle.

This enhanced military capability has, predictably, been accompanied by a rising civilian death toll. Among the deadliest drone strikes was the attack in January of this year on a camp for internally displaced peoples (IDPs) in the Tigray region which killed fifty-six people, including children. This is in addition to a strike on the town on Mai Tsebri which killed seventeen people working at a local flour mill, according to local humanitarian workers.

Rescuers search building after airstrike: Credit: AP

It is important to note that these drone strikes come against a background of several other reported atrocities such as a massacre in the Tigray town of Axum in late 2021, confirmed by Amnesty International, with some news outlets claiming that the total number of civilian casualties in Axum may have been as high as seven hundred. Whilst the exact number of casualties cannot be confirmed, Amnesty has concluded that hundreds of people were systematically killed by Ethiopian and Eritrean troops, following satellite imagery analysis which indicated not only indiscriminate shelling, but also the presence of mass burial grounds within the town. Furthermore, the United Nations (via the World Food Programme) has stated that almost 40 percent of Tigrayans are suffering from an “extreme lack of food” largely due to military blockades and has set up a commission to investigate human rights abuses. Despite these measures, it is undeniable that the overall response to the conflict from the UN and from western nations has been hesitant and weak. In September 2021 the US State Department commissioned a report to investigate the possibility that crimes committed by Ethiopian and Eritrean forces in western Tigray may amount to genocide. However, the findings of the report have been kept secret. Molly Phee, the Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs stated that “We have decided to refrain at the current moment from making a public determination [on the investigation of genocide] in order to allow space and time to see if the diplomatic talks that are under way can make any progress.”

Western Components in Drone Models Operated by the Ethiopian Military

It is now well known that many western companies have supplied components used in drones operated by the Ethiopian military. A prime example can be found in the manufacture of Turkish Bayraktar-TB2 drones. Over recent years, the TB2 has used navigational equipment developed by US companies and contains Austrian-made engines, German-made altimeters as well as British-made fuel pumps and missile racks.

EDO MBM Technology, a British company based in Brighton, is the manufacturer of the hornet missile rack, which was supplied to Baykar Makina, the Turkish developer of the TB2 drone.  Baykar Makina has denied this and claimed that it has now developed its own “much more advanced model at an affordable cost.”  L3 Harris, the U.S. based parent company of EDO MBM Technology, has refused to comment on the exact nature of its business relationship with Baykar Makina.

Moreover, the British company Andair has now ceased supplying fuel pumps to Baykar Madina after both human rights groups and the Armenian embassy contacted the company in 2021 in relation to the deployment of TB2 drones by the military of Azerbaijan against Armenian forces in 2020 within Nagorno-Karabakh, a disputed region fiercely fought over by the two countries. In a similar case, it was discovered that the Turkish TB2 has utilised navigational equipment developed by Garmin Ltd, a U.S. company registered in Switzerland. The company released a statement in late 2020 saying “the Garmin product used in these drones is a commercial, non-military product. We are investigating how our products ended up in these drones and we will take appropriate action following our investigation.”

There can be little doubt that the international sale of military drone components will become increasingly difficult to track or regulate in the future as many  different types of armed drones proliferate, and become smaller, cheaper, and simpler in their design.

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