Are Ethiopian troops using Iranian drones in the Tigray war?
NAIROBI, Kenya - With the Ethiopian conflict now spilling over from Tigray to other neighboring states such as Afar and Amhara, there have been reports that Ethiopia National Defense Forces [ENDF] have been using sophisticated drones from Iran in their operations.
The Tigray Defense Forces [TDF] which has particularly been at loggerheads with the federal army, has often claimed the military has been operating armed drones from an airbase in neighboring Eritrea.
For some time, the only firm open-source evidence of drone use by the Ethiopian government has been of small unarmed Chinese commercial drones operated by the country’s police, which were subsequently used by the military.
Although the ENDF at first denied using drones in the Tigray region, the team, later on, made an admission, corroborating information which was initially published by the investigative site, Bellingcat.com. The ENDF claimed it was targeting TDF while some evidence showed even innocent civilians were targeted.
“Our air force is equipped with modern drones. We have our own technicians and controllers who run and fly them. We don’t need others to help us out with this in our fight against the extremists. We’re pretty self-reliant”, remarked Major General Yilma Merdasa of the Ethiopian Air Force in an interview to local media last November.
But Maj. Gen. Merdasa’s interview didn’t answer one particularly important question — who built Ethiopia’s fleet of drones?
That’s even more important to ask in light of reports which surfaced last week by open-source researchers alleging that Ethiopia now operates Iranian-manufactured armed drones. Bellingcat obtained new satellite imagery from Planet SkySat and MAXAR, as well as evidence from social media, to further analyze these claims.
In some images posted on Facebook and Twitter Bellingcat established that Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed with Temesgen Tiruneh, head of the National Intelligence and Security Service (in a blue jacket) walking away from the tarmac.
Although it has not been possible to establish precisely who took this set of images, they first appeared that same morning on several Facebook pages strongly supportive of the government, including Ethio Times and Kiyya Hararghe. The images were also later published on the Facebook page of Voice of America’s Oromo service, a major language in Ethiopia.
“Army commander and Prime Minister Dr. Abiy Ahmed on the Afar front”, read this Amharic-language caption.
Bellingcat and open-source researchers such as flight tracker expert @Gerjon_ were able to independently geolocate these photos to Semara Airport (11.791731, 40.991712).
For instance, in the background of one image, behind the Prime Minister, a Ground Control Station (GCS) can be seen — this facility contains systems for controlling drones. An aircraft can be seen next to the GCS which deserves closer attention. Could this be a drone, and if so, what type?
One of the images included in the Facebook post provides a glimpse inside the GCS. It shows a video feed from a camera, often seen as part of Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) pods on drones. In short, this is the view which a drone operator at a military base would see on their computer screen.
But Twitter users such as @Iranianmilitary_AR soon noticed similarities with Iranian military software. This established that indeed, ENDF was using Iranian drones, which at some point Tehran was in conflict with Washington.
Bellingcat.com also established similarities by watching drone feed footage broadcast in 2019 on an Iranian news channel and uploaded to the video-sharing website Aparat. Various measurements, such as the latitude-longitude meter, are arranged in exactly the same way on the screen. The same distinct crosshair can also be seen in both images.
These commonalities, Bellingcat noted, suggest that both drones use a similar Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition, and Reconnaissance (ISTAR) software.
The aforementioned features of some Iranian drone feed footage appear to have remained consistent since 2019. For example, in May 2021 a video published by Iranian TV and shared on Youtube shows the Iranian military operating Mohajer-6 drones with a clear sight of the drone feed.
Bellingcat checked the drone feed seen at Semara against other publicly available drone feed footage for Chinese, Turkish, Iranian, and US drones, but found no other close match. While this does not conclusively rule out other configurations, it makes it more likely that the elements seen on the screen are those of a specific software feed for the Mohajer-6.
Bellingcat also obtained high-resolution 0.5m imagery from Planet SkySat of Semara Airport on August 2, 2021 — a day before the photos of PM Abiy Ahmed’s visit was taken. The image below includes more clues to the identity of the aircraft:
As the GCS can be used for operating drones, it is reasonable to suspect that the aircraft nearby could well be drones.
The measurement of the aircraft in satellite imagery shows that these two aircraft have a wingspan of 10 meters, and a length of six meters. This helps eliminate some possible drone candidates that have recently appeared in various conflicts, such as the Chinese Wing Loong II and the CH-4 and CH-5, or the Turkish Bayraktar TB-2. All of these have longer wingspans.
Further, Bellingcat obtained a MAXAR WorldView-3 high-res 0.8m resolution image of Semara on August 5, courtesy of European Space Imaging. However, atmospheric conditions limit the use of this image. It is a little blurrier, which complicates a clearer view of the shape of the drones.
By this time, the 737 has already left. However, we still see what are likely to be two drones at Semara airport, including the GCS on the tarmac. One of the two drones has been moved closer to the main airport building.
As noted earlier, the wing measurements from satellite imagery did not match those of several Chinese drone types known to be used in conflict zones. However, that alone did not rule out all Chinese manufactured drones — an important stage in verification, considering previous confirmed use of Chinese drones in Ethiopia’s police operations. Furthermore, the precise shape of the satellite imagery wasn’t clear enough to determine the exact model, leaving more questions open.
With those wing measurements in mind, let’s return to the photos showing PM Abiy Ahmed at the airfield. A closer look at photos from the extensive Facebook album of the PM’s visit to Semara showed the outline of a drone that fitted the shape of an Iranian Mohajer-6.
A closer look reveals further similarities between the landing gear and shape of this drone and those of the Iranian Mohajer-6.
On the drone to the right, two different images from the aforementioned Facebook photo album show the various parts of the drones in the background. Once aligned, we can see the tailfin of the drone and begin to have a composite image (given that both drones appear to be identical).
In the blue box in the top zoomed-in image, we see a possible missile shape under the drone, which will be discussed later. These specific designs are outlined in the zoomed-in images below: the curved flare nose, landing gear, measurements, and wingspan are unique features for a Mohajer-6, providing more indications that this could indeed be a drone of Iranian origin.
As far as Bellingcat was able to establish by the time of publication, there are currently no other drones with these specific measurements and shapes which fit this profile. Once again, although certain Chinese (GAIC Yaoying II/ Air-Sniper-2) and Turkish (Karayel) manufactured drones have similar measurements, none were as close a match with the Facebook imagery of the drone shared above.
There have been massive allegations that the ENDF committed genocide in the Tigray region, with thousands of people believed to have been massacred. The ENDF denied the allegations even though the UN Security Council called for an independent audit.
In retaliation, the Tigray Defense Forces have been closing into Afar and Amhara regions, where it is pursuing those it accuses of overseeing genocide in Tigray. And in response, PM Abiy Ahmed has since asked citizens to help in fighting against TDF, which he accuses of causing anarchy in the country.
There are fears that the conflict could escalate to dangerous levels after it emerged that TDF could partner with Oromo Liberation Army (OLA), an outfit from Abiy's Oromia region which has been against his leadership. The two parties are said to be exploring ways of cooperation.