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Drone Swarms in Ethiopia

Foreign-supplied armed drones are credited with playing a significant part in the latest reversal in the Tigrayan conflict.

Debates around armed drones tend to focus on the U.S.’s keen application of the hardware. Due to the war in Afghanistan, however, the armed drone cat has been truly let out of the bag. This now goes far beyond the scope of U.S. involvement, as the civilian casualties in Ethiopia’s ongoing conflict show.

President Biden voiced concern about air strikes during Ethiopia’s 14-month-long civil conflict in a phone conversation with Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed on January 10. That was the same day 17 Tigrayan civilians were killed and 21 injured, most of them women, according to the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, after an air strike, reportedly by a drone, hit a flour mill. Since the year began, at least 108 civilians have been killed, reportedly, and 75 others injured because of air strikes allegedly carried out by the Ethiopian air force, the U.N. estimates.

A question hangs over the role of foreign-supplied drones in such attacks, which takes us back to those days when the dragon’s teeth of drone warfare were sown in Afghanistan. In the aftermath of 9/11, when all bets were off, Afghanistan became the crucible of drone use and development—the birthplace of the armed drone. But due to U.S. tendencies to guard its best toys—especially the technology involved in the Reapers and Predators that I worked with in Afghanistan during a six month tour in Helmand Province—other nations have stepped in to fill the gap in the market:

“The United States, unwilling to share advanced technology, has been sidelined by regional competitors that manufacture armed drones that, while not as efficient, are still able to turn the tide, becoming decisive weapons in any modern conflict,” reports Al Jazeera.

By the end of last year, the Tigrayan Defence Forces (TDF) had completed a stunning comeback after their defeat in November 2020 put federal forces in control of Tigray. The TDF pushed hundreds of kilometers south through enemy territory in the neighboring region of Amhara and captured two key towns viewed as gateways to Addis Ababa. They were poised to strike the capital and topple the prime minister and his government. Tigrayan commanders confidently spoke about transitioning to a post-Abiy regime following a soon to come final victory.

Now those key towns are back in the hands of federal forces, and the TDF have about-turned and returned to Tigray far in Ethiopia’s north.

From the start of Ethiopia’s conflict there have been reports the government was reaching out to foreign suppliers for drones. Due to the government-enforced lockdown and communications blackout of Tigray, it has been exceedingly hard for journalists and other agencies to access the region and establish the veracity of events on the ground. But there is a general consensus, as a result of photographic evidence, investigations, and reports, that the acquisition and use of Chinese unmanned aerial vehicles and Turkish, UAE, and Iranian armed drones made a significant difference when the Ethiopian government had its back against the wall.

“The precision-guided munitions are sure to have wreaked havoc among Tigray Defense Forces’ fire-support assets such as tanks and artillery,” says Stijn Mitzer, author of the Oryx blog, a website that investigates armed drone proliferation. “The psychological effect of drone strikes likely did much to weaken the morale of TDF fighters.”

The drones also appear to have allowed the government to disrupt TDF logistics and the resupply of its front lines, with multiple drones patrolling the single tarmac road running south from Tigray and engaging any trucks detected there. They also provided an excellent intelligence picture of the situation on the ground, especially useful when dealing with a force like the TDF, which is renowned for its asymmetric warfare skills, preferring hit and run tactics.

That said, drones were one part of a multi-factored military equation that led the TDF commanders to conclude the position of their forces was untenable, says Martin Plaut, a long-term commentator on the Horn of Africa and a fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies. The extended TDF lines of communication had made them especially vulnerable to attacks from the flanks. The TDF, superb fighters in mountainous environments, found themselves fighting on open plains and therefore more vulnerable to conventional tactics. The TDF also has a limited pool of manpower to draw on compared to the Ethiopian military—the population of Tigray is 6 million, compared to the rest of the country, made up of more than 100 million non-Tigrayans.

Nevertheless, in such a tight and drawn out contest, the addition of a more high-tech problem hitting TDF troops, on top of all the other more old-fashioned military challenges, may well have been what finally tipped the scales.

What is happening in Ethiopia is indicative of a larger trend seen around the world, especially in backwater conflicts (conflicts that don’t directly affect the West yet). The Turkish Bayraktar TB-2 armed drone was used to great effect in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict in Azerbaijan, as well as in the conflicts in western Libya and northern Syria, Al Jazeera reports.

The use of armed drones in Ethiopia’s conflict—as with the use of any airpower—raises questions about collateral damage and civilian deaths, which are all but inevitable from air strikes during a prolonged conflict. As I learned in Afghanistan, whether drones are better or worse than other aircraft in reducing the risks of killing civilians is far from clear.

“Airstrikes with Mig-23 and Sukhoi Su-27 jet fighters and attack helicopters using unguided missiles and bombs increased the risk of killing civilians, and there are mounting reports of civilian casualties from airstrikes, whereas drones with guided missiles could avert civilian casualties,” notes a recent report, compiled by the Dutch peace organization PAX, confirming through satellite imagery the presence of Turkish armed drones in Ethiopia. “However, there are strong indications based on eye-witness accounts and munition remnants found in the field that armed drones also have been involved in attacks against civilians or civilian objects.”

Considering the enormous number of bombs and missiles we unleashed on the Taliban in our area of operations, the rarity with which civilian casualties occurred testified to the professionalism of the soldiers on the ground and to the strict rules of engagement (ROE) employed in adherence with the Law of Armed Conflict (LOAC). As I found also in Iraq, ROE can be so limiting as to draw the opprobrium of soldiers who feel they cannot fight effectively as a result.

While the Ethiopian military is regarded as relatively professional compared to other African armies, it is simply not on par with the militaries of western countries such as the U.S. and U.K. Neither are the Ethiopian military—or the militaries providing specialist assistance with the drones—as prudent in their use of ROE and LOAC, or in their application of air power.

“There is clearly a very low threshold for what constitutes a military target,” says Will Davison, senior Ethiopia analyst for International Crisis Group. He notes air strikes carried out on a hydropower station and a textile factory, and others which have caused civilian deaths in the likes of marketplaces and displaced people camps in Tigray.

“When retreating from Mekelle, [the government] declared that the whole people of Tigray turned against them…for them any differentiation between a soldier and a civilian doesn’t work and thus the reason for indiscriminate attacks and choice of targets is for the maximum kill,” says an Ethiopian academic who has worked on African issues of peace and security, including as a senior advisor for the U.N., and who requested anonymity.

This has been an exceedingly dirty and bitter fight. The list of potential war crimes in the Ethiopian conflict is long. This war has been characterized by misinformation, confusion, ethnic hatred, extrajudicial killings, systematic rape, and massacres of civilians.

“The numerous human rights violations, some amounting to war crimes, conducted by both the Ethiopian government and the Tigrayan forces, is sufficient reason to halt all arms sales to the country,” the PAX report says, noting that though Turkey signed the Arms Trade Treaty, an international treaty that regulates the trade in conventional weapons, including armed drones, it still has not ratified it yet.

Perhaps Turkey is watching the emerging military trends while keeping its bottom line in mind.

“Targeted killing using drones has become part of the American way of war,” former director of the CIA Michael Hayden commented in 2019. As that style of remote warfare continues to spread and affect conflicts such as Ethiopia’s, it presents newfound potential for the arms trade.

“With new arms export contracts for Turkish drones concluded all over Africa, it is expected that the growing deployment of armed drones will soon see an increase in use as well,” says the PAX report. It notes how armed drones—either Chinese or Israeli—have been implicated in various strikes by Morocco against separatist groups during 2021:

Their growing popularity and increased deployment in opaque military operations on the African continent comes accompanied with a general failure to address international calls for transparency and accountability of armed drone strikes, both by African and third states, in particular in counter-terrorism operations.

That last bit has a notable feeling of déjà vu about it—counter-terrorism operations were how U.S. drone use got its kickstart in Afghanistan. The increasing availability of bargain-basement armed drones to influence the waging of war around the globe—especially in the developing world—is proceeding at a pace that currently is outstripping the capabilities to moderate it.

James Jeffrey is a freelance journalist and writer who splits his time between the US, the UK, and further afield, and writes for various international media. Follow him on Twitter: @jrfjeffrey and at his website: www.jamesjeffreyjournalism.com.