The deployment of Emirati unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs) on the side of the Ethiopian government has been speculated on ever since the beginning of conflict with the rebellious Tigray Region in November 2020.
Nonetheless, the oft-repeated claim that several Chinese-made Wing Loong UCAVs operated out of Assab air base in Eritrea to undertake combat missions over Tigray has never been supported by evidence that points towards such a deployment.
However, new information received by the authors’ from an aircraft mechanic working at Harar Media air base appears to finally disclose the presence of Emirati Wing Loong Is UCAVs over Ethiopia.
Rather than operating out of neighbouring Eritrea, the United Arab Emirates appears to have deployed at least six Wing Loong I UCAVs to Harar Media air base located near the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa.
The deployment of Emirati armed drones to Ethiopia comes amidst an increasingly detoriating security situation throughout the country, with government forces all but capable of stemming the threat from Tigray forces.
After the Ethiopian Army’s disastrous offensive against Tigray forces in early October, these commenced a counteroffensive that at one point even threatened the security of the capital.
Reports that the Ethiopian government could soon succumb to the threat posed by Tigray forces is sure to have alerted authorities in Abu Dhabi, and 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.
The source reported on the recent arrival of at least six Wing Loong Is along with Emirati personnel to Harar Meda air base, although it’s not yet clear whether the Emiratis will also operate the UCAVs over Ethiopia. Considering Ethiopian personnel would first need to undergo extensive training on the operations of Wing Loong Is, the initial use of Emirati operators does not seem implausible.
The source works for Dejen Aviation Engineering Industry (DAVI) at Harar Meda air base and had previously correctly informed the authors’ on the arrival of three Wing Loong Is purchased by Ethiopia from China, which’s story we broke in early October 2021.
The UAE already delivered a large VTOL type of UCAV armed with two heavy mortar rounds to the Ethiopian military in the summer of 2021, but the deployment of six of its own Wing Loong Is is nonetheless a huge increase in its support.
The United Arab Emirates is an active user of both Wing Loong I and Wing Loong II UCAVs, deploying them in combat over Yemen and Libya, where it lost at least twelve examples to crashes, Houthi surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) and Turkish air defence systems.
In January 2020, an Emirati Wing Loong I carried out a lethal drone strike that killed 26 unarmed cadets at a military academy in Tripoli, Libya. Also in 2020 Amnesty International urged the United States to stop drone sales to UAE over the use of armed drones by the UAE to ”target civilian homes and health facilities, including field hospitals and ambulances’
The Wing Loong I is China’s most commercially successful UCAV design, so far confirmed to have been exported to seven export clients worldwide, including Ethiopia. The type features one hardpoint under under each wing for the total carriage of two air-to-ground missiles (AGMs) or guided bombs.
What the Wing Loong I lacks in the number of hardpoints, it makes up for in the wide variety of armament it can carry. In early November, it became known that Ethiopia had purchased TL-2 AGMs for its Wing Loong Is, up to four of which can be carried on double pylons by each Wing Loong I. The UAE is known to mainly use AR-1 AGMs with its Wing Loong UCAVs.
The deployment of Emirati UCAVs to Ethiopia is a substantial increase in quality and kalibre of the United Arab Emirates’ support to the embattled regime of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, and could signal that the UAE is willing to guarantee the survival of the current government even at exorbitant political and financial costs.
Since August 2021, more than 100 cargo flights from the United Arab Emirates to Ethiopia have been identified, most carrying various types of armament onboard, at some point evidently including these drones.
Tigray forces might be forced to take note if the UAE’s deployment is to resemble anything of the determination and extensive involvement of its past interventions in Yemen and Libya.