Wing Loong Is Over Ethiopia: Chinese UCAVs Join The Battle For Tigray
By Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans
After the acquisition of Iranian and Emirati unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs) by Ethiopia, there now is strong reason to suggest that a third type of UCAV has joined the conflict: The Chinese-made Wing Loong I. Information received by the authors’ combined with a suspicious cargo flight to Harar Meda air base in Ethiopia from Chengdu, China, where the Wing Loong I is manufactured, point towards the delivery of at least three of such systems to Ethiopia in September 2021. The news comes a week after the confirmed use of UAE-supplied UCAVs with the Ethiopian military in the contested Tigray Region. 
Yet it was already in early September 2021 that the acquisition of the Wing Loong I was first hinted at after a model of the UCAV was prominently displayed during an interview with the commander of the Ethiopian Air Force. The participation of Chinese UCAVs in the Tigray War has already been speculated at since the start of the conflict in November 2020. Frequently said to have included the deployment of Wing Loong UCAVs operated by the UAE out of Assab air base in Eritrea, no evidence has so far been brought forward that supports these claims however.
But new information received by the authors from a mechanic working for Dejen Aviation Engineering Industry (DAVI) at Harar Media air base, finally discloses the presence of Chinese-made UCAVs in Ethiopia. Describing a UCAV with a bulge on the front of their fuselages and one hardpoint under each wing that had recently arrived from China, its external characteristics correspond precisely with the Wing Loong I.  After the drones’ arrival to the air base, they were hastily moved to a nearby hangar to avoid their detection by prying eyes, an effort which nonetheless evidently failed.
The cargo aircraft that brought the Wing Loong Is to Ethiopia is believed to have been an An-124 ‘UR-82029’ of Ukraine’s Antonov Airlines, which was sighted on satellite imagery of Harar Media air base on the 17th of September 2021. During this particular flight, UR-82029 started its journey out of Chengdu (where the Wing Loong I is produced) before making a brief stopover in Islamabad, ultimately landing at its final destination of Harar Meda air base some time later.  This flight is part of a larger effort by several countries to keep Ethiopia stocked on all the weaponry and ammunition it needs to stem the advance of the Tigray Defence Forces, as detailed in our earlier articles on the subject. 
In an interview conducted with Ethiopian Air Force Commander Major General Yilma Merdassa in early September 2021, a model of the Wing Loong I was put on prominent display between the Major General and the journalist. During the interview – which is almost entirely dedicated to drone warfare – the journalist makes repeated inquiries regarding the Ethiopian Air Force’s current drone operations, at one point even directly asking if there have been any deals with other countries for the acquisition of UCAVs. In response, Major General Yilma Merdassa explains that the Ethiopian Air Force is in a great position with regards to drones, and that the Air Force isn’t just planning for today but for the next ten years. In response to the question of whether there have been any deals with other countries, the Major General makes the politically correct (though slightly disappointing) answer that such questions should be addressed to the responsible branches of government.
The Wing Loong I is currently China’s most commercially successful UCAV design, so far confirmed to have been acquired by at least six export clients worldwide.  The type has meanwhile been superseded by the more capable Wing Loong II, which features a host of improvements including two hardpoints under each wing for double the weapons payload. However, the Wing Loong II’s high acquisition price (believed to approach some 15 million USD) compared to the earlier Wing Loong I as well as contemporary designs has ensured that the latter is still popular on the export market to this day.
What the Wing Loong I lacks in the number of hardpoints, it makes up for in the wide variety of armament it can carry. Be that as it may, export clients have generally refrained from acquiring weapon systems such as long-range glide bombs and anti-ship missiles associated with the Wing Loong I, instead sticking to a smaller number of air-to-ground missiles (AGMs) and precision-guided munitions (PGMs). It seems likely that this will be no different for Ethiopian Air Force, the main interest of which in the system would be directed to its anti-armour and anti-infantry capabilities.
Facing an arsenal of UCAVs that seems to be expanding by the month, the Tigray forces will now likely begin to feel the increased pressure they bring to bear on the battlefield. One the opposing side, the Ethiopian military might soon find out that its desperate buying spree has now left it with UCAV types from at least three different countries, complicating maintenance and adding to costs. In this sense, claims that the Ethiopian Air Force is executing a calculated acquisition strategy for the next ten years seem to hold little ground in reality, with the Air Force instead trying to make up for years of disregard of modern developments worldwide. Considering the pivotal role UCAVs are likely to play in the Tigray War, and Ethiopia’s abandon in purchasing them, the Wing Loong Is might not even be the last type of U(C)AV to be acquired.
Special thanks to Saba Tsen’at Mah’derom.
 UAE Combat Drones Break Cover In Ethiopia https://www.oryxspioenkop.com/2021/10/uae-combat-drones-break-cover-in.html
 For obvious security reasons, the identity of the mechanic will not be shared.
 UAE Air Bridge Supports Ethiopian Military in Tigray War https://www.oryxspioenkop.com/2021/10/uae-air-bridge-supports-ethiopian.html
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