The significant role played by armed drones in deciding outcomes in Ethiopia’s conflict is emblematic of how lethal drones are spreading in the skies above Africa. They add a terrifying new dimension to violent conflict on the continent where warfare has hitherto to been generally confined to ground battles. Investigative report by James Jeffrey.
Ethiopia is at the forefront of a military trend in Africa that sees armed drones becoming an increasingly sought-after military option across the continent.
In the aftermath of 9/11, Afghanistan became the crucible of drone use and development spearheaded by the US. But, due to the US being unwilling to share the advanced technology involved in its Reaper and Predator drones, other nations such as Turkey have stepped in to fill the gap in the market.
While such drones are not as advanced in comparison, they are still proving themselves as decisive weapons in conflicts such as Ethiopia’s, that has been going on since November 2020.
Ethiopia’s embrace of armed drones is indicative of a larger trend happening in Africa and around the world, especially in ‘backwater conflicts’ – read, conflicts that don’t directly affect or interest the West, yet. The Turkish Bayraktar TB2 armed drone has been used to great effect in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict in Azerbaijan, as well as in the conflicts in western Libya and northern Syria.
“I think Ethiopia at the moment is indeed the heaviest user of drones on the continent,” Wim Zwijnenburg, a drone specialist for Dutch peace organisation PAX who has been monitoring the fighting in Ethiopia, told Agence France-Presse at the start of the year.
From the start of Ethiopia’s conflict, there were reports the government was seeking drones by reaching out to foreign suppliers. 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 as a result of photographic evidence and investigations, there is a general consensus that the acquisition and use of Chinese, Turkish, UAE and Iranian drones – both unarmed drones purely for surveillance and drones carrying weapons – made a significant difference when the Ethiopian government had its back against the wall in November 2021, with the Tigray Defence Forces (TDF) advancing within 250 miles of Addis Ababa and the government calling on the capital’s residents to arm themselves in order to defend it.
“The reports I have were that the first wave of drones – from November to December in 2020 – were operated by Emiratis, and the current wave is partly operated by Turkish personnel,” says Alex de Waal, the director of the World Peace Foundation at Tufts University.
“Definitely the drones have been crucial. They were primarily effective in disrupting the TDF logistics. There is a single tarmac road from Tigray south all the way to the province of Shewa, and during December there were about a dozen drones at any one time patrolling that road and shooting at any trucks moving along it, making it extremely difficult and hazardous for the TDF to supply its front lines.”
After the Ethiopian government’s initial apparent victory over the TDF in November 2020, it learned how hard it was to hold Tigray with troops on the ground, resulting in its withdrawal from the region followed by the TDF’s advance south.
The use of armed drones gives the government an effective alternative – especially given its tiny force of combat aircraft, estimated at 22 – for attacking and harassing its enemy, while not exposing ground forces in Tigray.
The inferior technological prowess of drones such as the Turkish TB2, compared to the top-of-the-range Reapers and Predators, can actually be an advantage for cash-strapped governments like Ethiopia’s.
“The TB2’s low relative cost and reliability allow several to be flown at once and enables maintenance of a near-constant presence over the battlespace, meaning that surprise tactics by one’s adversary will be spotted and much less likely to succeed,” reports Al Jazeera in its article ‘How armed drones may have helped turn the tide in Ethiopia’s war’.
These affordable capabilities of remote warfare are why other African countries are turning to drones. In its 2021 report, Remote Horizons: The expanding use and proliferation of military drones in Africa, PAX documented the rapid advance of military drones across Africa. The report shows that during the last 14 years, African and foreign states have been involved in drone operations in at least 20 states in North Africa, the Sahel and Horn of Africa.
“Their growing use has been driven by both their use in counter-terrorism operations for targeted killings and the need for more situation awareness and information in regular military operations through a range of cameras and sensors fitted to the drones,” says the PAX report, noting its findings “demonstrate a pattern of growing drone use and proliferation throughout the continent that warrants further public and political debate.”
Morocco has proved one of the keenest in pursuing the drone capability for its military. Morocco’s Royal Armed Forces (FAR) signed a contract to buy 13 Bayraktar TB2 combat drones from Turkey, according to The Defense Post, a US-based independent security and defence news publication. That purchase came a year after the North African nation received three Israeli-made Heron reconnaissance drones.
In December 2020, Washington reportedly signalled its approval for the sale of four MQ-9B SeaGuardian drones to Morocco. Other African countries involved in drones – either armed or for surveillance – include Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Chad, Nigeria, Cameroon, Djibouti, Somalia and Sudan.
When it comes to non-African states, the US has drones stationed in Djibouti that are used for airstrikes in Yemen and Somalia. It also flies unarmed surveillance drones from bases in Tunisia and Cameroon, according to Foreign Policy’s article, ‘Shadowy US Drone War in Africa Set to Expand’.
Other non-African countries operating drones across the continent include France in Mali, Italy in Libya and the UN in Congo. At the same time, non-state actors and terrorist groups such as Boko Haram have developed their own drones for reconnaissance and surveillance operations. The fear is such groups have ambitions to weaponise their drones for attacks.
The PAX report notes that human rights activists, legal experts, United Nations special rapporteurs and affected communities have all raised concerns that the increased use of lethal force with remote weapons such as drones could stretch legal frameworks and lower the threshold for the deployment of such force.
Whether drones are better or worse than other aircraft in reducing the risks of killing civilians is far from clear. The fierce debate around these often sinisterly portrayed pieces of military hardware tends to miss how it isn’t the weapon-bearing platform itself that is the crucial factor, but rather how it is used in the context of mission aims, training, Rules of Engagement (ROE) and adherence to the international Law of Armed Conflict (LOAC). This dynamic has been highlighted in Ethiopia’s conflict.
“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 other sites, which have caused civilian deaths in the likes of marketplaces and displaced people camps in Tigray.
Sifting through the fog of war and parsing the use and impact of airpower, including establishing whether a drone strike caused civilian deaths as opposed to a munition released by a jet, is extremely difficult – especially in a conflict as opaque as Ethiopia’s. The lack of transparency tends to be a factor across the board with other African countries using drones.
“It is alarming that states using armed drones in Africa are secretive about their use of drones in military and intelligence operations,” says the PAX review, noting such secrecy extends to the cooperation with non-African states, especially in counter-terrorism operations. “Covert drone operations make it difficult to determine the legality of their use and this hampers debates on the military use of drones in Africa.”
Opaque legal position
None of this is helped by the absence of a clear legal position from African states and the African Union on the use of armed drones, which is compounded by how “states have severely repressed oppositional views in the media,” the report says. “This ongoing secrecy by states about drone deployments in Africa and censorship of the press limits the space for civil society to engage meaningfully in a debate about drone warfare in Africa.”
As remotely conducted drone warfare continues to spread around the continent, it presents newfound potential for the arms trade, which given the amounts of money involved will likely compound the proliferation of drone use in Africa.
“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 [their] use as well,” Zwijnenburg notes in another PAX report, released this January, about satellite imagery confirming the presence of Turkish drones in Ethiopia.
All the evidence suggests that the increasing availability of affordable armed drones for shaping military actions around the continent – combined with African governments acting independently in their own perceived best interests – is something occurring at a pace that is outstripping the capabilities of the international and collective African community to moderate and regulate it.
“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 the transparency and accountability of armed drone strikes, both by African and third states,” Zwijnenburg says. “Current developments should warrant for rapid international action to strengthen legal principles over the use of lethal force and rethink arms export controls and risk assessments around the sale of armed drones.”
But as long as the West, which pioneered the use of armed drones in war situations, continues to use lethal drones in its conflicts, it has no leverage on African or other developing areas on their use of these weapons.