Tigray says it has managed to strike the Eritrean capital, Asmara, with rockets. But is this plausible? I could find no relevant rocket system in standard reference works.
I put out a Tweet asking which rocket systems might have been in Tigray’s Northern Command when this conflict began. I received this reply, with photos.
But the person who sent them made it plain that his conclusions were speculative and tentative – rather than certain.
Since this was posted, I have added some more photographs at the end.
It is possible that the Ethiopian arsenal has a weapons system that had not been made public, making the known open source information (f.e. globalsecurity and wikipedia) incorrect.
It is interesting to note that Getachew Reda, the TPLF spokesperson, claimed his military is able to strike Asmara (75km from closest Ethiopian border) and Massawa (110km from closest Ethiopian border).
There are four options:
1) these are upgraded BM-21 rockets
2) this is an unknown system
3) these were local attacks from closer to Asmara
4) Getachew Reda is bluffing.
I do not see why Getachew Reda would be is bluffing. You have to be able to carry out your threats. And there were numerous reports of explosions in Asmara, so I think we can ignore option 4.
The Ethiopian arsenal contains the PHL-03/AR rocket artillery system
In assessing whether Ethiopia has a previously unknown system in its arsenal, I came across these pictures on the internet. The images were found via a search on the low-quality military blog The Dead District. They were posted on the 7 November, 3 days after the start of the conflict. It is not clear where the blog got the pictures from.
But it is possible that the images show the Ethiopian military with the PHL-03 system.
A great deal of heavy equipment was allegedly stationed with the Northern Command. This means it is possible that the Tigrayan forces have this long range artillery capability.
If so, it would have been these systems that were targeted in the first round of the airstrikes by the Federal military. It would explain this sentence by Prime Minister Abiy: “The strikes hit sites in and around the regional capital Mekelle and destroyed heavy artillery including rocket launchers, said Abiy in a statement broadcast by state-affiliated Fana on Friday evening.”
This system has an alleged range of 70-130km (the original BM-30 Smerch has an alleged firing range of 90km), which means Gonder, Asmara and Massawa are within striking range. But it would not explain the explosions in Bahir Dar, which is outside this range. There are rumours that OLF played a role in these attacks, which could be true.
So along the lines of probability, as a layman, I would propose the following:
– Gonder (80km): PHL-03 or local attack equally probable
– Bahir Dar (200km): local attack more probable
– Asmara (75km): PHL-03 more probable
– Massawa (threatened, 110km): use of PHL-03 more probable
But we cannot be certain that these are authentic pictures, showing Ethiopians. It is also not certain that these images are of the PHL-03.
However, comparing the cabin from the pictures with this picture seems to result in a positive identification.
This would suggest that the Chinese exported this system to Ethiopia (which is not unlikely, as China and Ethiopia have a good relationship).
So four questions remain:
1) are the troops in the pictures Ethiopian?
2) where these systems present in Tigray at the moment the conflict started?
3) are they operated by TPLF?
4) in which of these attacks have they actually been used? (as it is possible that Asmara was struck with this system, but Gonder and Bahir Dar were local attacks; one option in Asmara does not exclude other options in Gonder).
We need more information before we can draw definite conclusions.
But I would not be surprised if it turns out at that at least in some of the attacks the AR2/PHL-03 system has been used. (AR2 is the export version of the PHL-03)