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Dubai Airshow 2021: Is Ethiopia using Emirati combat UAVs?

16th November 2021 - 17:45 GMT | by Elisabeth Gosselin-Malo in Milan

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Unreleased photographs of the alleged Emirati-supplied UCAV handled by Ethiopian soldiers. These images were reportedly taken in June 2021 in the Tigray Region. (Source: Twitter/Wim Zwijnenburg)

Photographic evidence suggests that the UAE has supplied armed UAVs to assist the Ethiopian National Defense Force in the ongoing Tigray War.

One year into a civil war between the Ethiopian government and Tigrayan rebels, the security situation has rapidly deteriorated with widespread fear over the collapse of the state and potential regional spillover. The UAE – an established military partner for Ethiopia – seems now to be even more invested.

In terms of defence procurement, relations between the two countries traditionally centred on the supply of small arms such as carbines and sniper rifles produced by Emirati company Caracal, as well as ammunition, to the Ethiopian Republican Guard.

However, materiel ties appear to have extended beyond guns. Between August and September 2021, open-source aircraft tracking websites recorded more than 50 cargo flights to Ethiopia in 53 days — 45 of these flights originated from the UAE. Several of these trips were carried out by Il-76 cargo aircraft registered in Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan but owned by UAE-based company Fly Sky Airlines. The same freight carrier had previously been used to deliver equipment to Libya.  

In a rare acknowledgement concerning the delivery of equipment from the UAE, Ethiopian Minister of Health Lia Tadesse on 19 October revealed that Abu Dhabi donated 50 Toyota Land Cruiser  ambulances — which would account for the cargo content of approximately 14 flights by Il-76s to Ethiopia.

The contents of the remaining freight flights have not been made public; however, photographs of armed UAVs have appeared on social media and news websites. These images were said to have been taken in the Maychew area of the Tigray region this summer and showed large vertical rotary-wing VTOL combat UAVs armed with two 120mm mortar bombs. The design of these aircraft is identical to UAVs that were destroyed in Yemen by Houthi forces and operated then by UAE-backed units.

While the specific model of the VTOL UAVs remains unknown, they would be operating alongside the expanding Ethiopian UAV fleet that currently comprises the DJI Mavic 2, Wander B, Aerostar, Wing Loong I and Mohajer-6 platforms. Shephard also reported in October 2021 that Ethiopia is interested in buying Turkish Bayraktar TB2 armed UAVs.

In November 2020, allegations from advisors to the Regional President of Tigray were made against Ethiopia claiming that it was being assisted by Emirati UAVs located at the UAE airbase in Assab, Eritrea (the airbase was dismantled in February 2021).

Shortly after this, the Ethiopian Prime Minister asserted that the country had carried out targeted strikes in multiple locations against  the Tigray Defense Forces. At this time, there was no evidence yet that Emirati UAVs had been used in these operations as they could have been conducted by either the MiG-23 or Sukhoi-27 fighter jets that the Ethiopian Air Force operates.

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