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.” Read more

Long read: Six strikes that show the reality of drone warfare today

Weddings. Hospitals. Refugee camps. Aid workers. All have become the target of lethal strikes this year due to the spreading use of drones by a growing number of states.  Here we detail six particular strikes and, below, reflect on what they show about the reality of drone warfare today.

1. January 3, 2021: French strike targeting a gathering of people, Mopti, Mali
Charred ground where French strike occurred according to UN investigation report.

Following surveillance by a French Reaper drone “spanning several days”, two French Mirage jets operating in conjunction with the drone fired three laser guided bombs at what was said to be a gathering of around 40 armed militants. French military spokesperson Col. Frederic Barbry told Associated Press that the strike followed an intelligence mission which showed a “suspicious gathering of people.”

The gathering, however, was a wedding party and, according to a subsequent UN investigation, 19 civilians, including the father of groom were killed. The detailed report concluded that around 100 people were at the wedding celebration including 5 men who were alleged to be members of an armed group, only one of whom visibly carried a weapon. The report stated:

“Of the 22 people killed, 19 were directly killed by the strike, including 16 civilians, while the three other civilians died of their injuries during their transfer for medical treatment. At least eight other civilians were injured in the strike.  The group affected by the strike was overwhelmingly composed of civilians who are people protected against attacks under international humanitarian law.“

France rejected the results of the UN investigation and continues to dispute that any civilians were killed in the strike.  [Further details.]

 2. May 4 2021: US strike targeting vehicle and occupant, Deir Ezzor, Syria

A US Reaper drone strike targeted the occupant of a vehicle in eastern Syria with the man killed instantly. The Coalition tweeted:

“CJTFOIR conducted an air strike removing a Daesh terrorist from the battlefield near Dayr az Zawr, Syria today. Coalition and our partners will continue our mission to defeat Daesh, disrupt their resources and eliminate Daesh remnants.”

However, locals disputed that the man killed, identified as Bassem Atwan Al-Bilal, was involved with ISIS or any other militant group, stating that he worked in the gas industry, refining oil.  They also revealed that the man had only bought the vehicle two days previously and suggested that target of the drone strike was likely to have been the previous owner. Read more

Turkey driving drone proliferation in its quest for market supremacy

Poland confirms purchase of 24 Bayraktar drones from Turkey: Credit Polish MoD

As the mass-produced version of Turkey’s new Akinci drone passed its maiden flight test, Poland announced that it will buy several models of its ancestor, the Bayraktar TB2.

“We negotiated a contract for the purchase of four sets, that is 24 aircraft, armed with anti-tank missiles,” Poland’s defence minister Mariusz Błaszczak told state radio in a May interview. The first are to be delivered in 2022.

Poland is the fifth of six nations to buy the TB2, following Azerbaijan, Morocco, Qatar and Ukraine, but preceding fellow NATO member, Albania. The unmanned aircraft has also taken to the skies over the Eastern Mediterranean and Libya, where it played a decisive role for the Government of National Accord against the renegade general, Khalifa Haftar.

The development of Turkish drone technology has been a generational effort and the result of a two-decade drive toward indigenous design and production across the country’s defence sector. In 2018, Turkey generated around $2.2 billion in sales, making it the world’s 14th largest arms exporter at the time. And while many analysts believe that several challenges – such as a nationwide brain drain – could slow the industry’s growth, the UAV programme has made Turkey an important player in the global drone market.

For decades, the United States and Israel have been the leading producers and sellers of surveillance drones, effectively holding a de facto monopoly over the industry. Figures from 2019 show that 49 countries were operating at least one UAV made in the U.S. and 39 had acquired at least one from Israel. Both, however, have been reluctant to export armed drones during their years at the top, although today, Washington is working to expand its policy so that previously prohibited governments can purchase their large, strike-capable crafts. Read more

Drone Proliferation Update, January 2021

Armed Turkish Bayraktar TB-2 drone

Over the last few months have seen a number of significant developments in relation to the increasing proliferation of armed drones. The most significant of these have been the use of Turkish Bayraktar TB-2’s in the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh which turned the military engagements in Azerbaijan’s favour and, secondly,  the Trump administration’s decision to unilateral reinterpret the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) agreement in order to allow it to export more armed drones.

  • This latest update details new operators and other significant developments around the proliferation of armed drones.  For our complete list of states operating, or close to operating, armed drones see Who Has Armed Drones?

Read more

Watch: ‘Drone Warfare: Today, Tomorrow, Forever?’

Here’s a recording of the webinar to mark our 10th anniversary ‘Drone Warfare: Today, Tomorrow, Forever?’

The event featured:

  • Aditi Gupta, Coordinator for the All-Party Parliamentary Group
  • Chris Cole, Director of Drone Wars UK
  • Ella Knight, campaigner at Amnesty International
  • Rachel Stohl, Vice President at the Stimson Center
  • Elke Schwarz, Lecturer in Political Theory at Queen Mary’s, University of London

US declares it will breach arms control agreement to sell more drones

US MTCR move signals Trump’s intent on arms control

The Trump administration announced on Friday (24 July) that it will breach the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) by unilaterally re-interpreting it in order to export armed drones.  The US has tried without success over the past four years to persuade other signatories of the agreement including the UK, Canada, France and Germany to make changes to allow unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVS) to be exempt from the 1987 agreement.  However, much to their annoyance, other countries have stood firm.

In essence, the MTCR, regulates missile, rockets and similar technology including drones that can travel at least 300km into two categories; Category I are those able to travel that distance and deliver a payload of 500-kilogram; Category II are those able to travel the distance but not carry a 500 kg payload.  Signatories agree a ‘strong presumption of denial’ of exporting Category I systems.  Read more