Ethiopia has always been a land of contradictions. So perhaps it shouldn’t be a surprise that its military appears to be harnessing drones supplied by two mutual enemies, Israel and Iran, to strike its own enemies.
Before conflict broke out in November 2020, the Ethiopian military was wholly reliant on Israeli unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), more commonly known as drones, for remotely controlled reconnaissance.
As the 14-month-long conflict unfolded, the Ethiopian government approached foreign backers such as UAE, Turkey and Iran to supply armed drones which have since proved decisive in turning the tide in the government’s favour at key moments — most recently this December when the Tigrayan forces’ advance appeared unstoppable and about to topple the government.
“This could mean that Israeli UAVs will be tasked with locating targets for Iranian Mohajer-6s,” says Stijn Mizer, an expert in proliferation. “Consequently, the Tigray War might go down in history as the first conflict in which Israeli and Iranian UAVs operate together on the same side.”
My experiences with armed drones and air power during a six-month tour in Afghanistan’s southern Helmand province in 2009 taught me that the fundamentals of such close air support (CAS) do not change — as evidenced by increasing numbers of Ethiopian civilians killed by air strikes. Such so-called collateral damage is all but inevitable in a drawn-out conflict applying air power.
It’s particularly difficult to tell whether an air strike came from a fighter jet or a drone, especially in a conflict as obfuscated as Ethiopia’s, during which the government has conducted a communication blackout and blockade of the Tigray region. But we know air strikes are killing civilians. Since the year began, at least 108 have been killed and 75 injured by air strikes allegedly carried out by the Ethiopian air force, the UN estimates. On 10 January, an air strike reportedly by a drone hit a flour mill, killing 17 civilians and injuring 21, most of them women.
The fierce debate around drones 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 a mission’s aims, training, rules of engagement and adherence to the international Law of Armed Conflict. A misjudged strike from a manned fighter jet causes as much devastation as a drone — just ask the Yeminis. Upwards of 20,000 people could have died as a direct result of air strikes by the Saudis and their allies — using billions of pounds worth of western-built munitions — during the six-year war in Yemen.
Notwithstanding the “guns don’t kill people, people kill people” aspect of armed drones, the impact of their increased use around the world must not be underestimated. With the US not wanting to share the technology of the sophisticated Reaper and Predator drones I used in Afghanistan, other countries are filling the gap.
Cheap, efficient drones are undermining the international community’s efforts to moderate their use around the globe, especially in more shadowy conflicts in the developing world.
“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,” notes a report by the Dutch peace organization PAX.
Israel has been on the receiving end of this. It has been “plagued with drones…sent by Hezbollah in Lebanon to reconnoitre targets,” writes Sir John Jenkins, former British Ambassador to Saudi Arabia. He also highlights Iran’s emerging military capability to “combine drones and missiles…with unprecedented accuracy.”
There may be something to the bluster of Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s leader, whom Jenkins notes “regularly threatens that any new conflict would be qualitatively different from previous ones: Israel’s home front would become a theatre of destruction, in spite of Israel’s own advances in anti-missile defence.”
The ready availability of armed drones enables operators to hit targets almost anywhere while not showing their hand. This includes targets in the better-known territories of the West’s allies in the Middle East. It also includes the little-known region of Tigray in Ethiopia’s neglected war. The list of regions affected by armed drones will only grow. And Iran’s involvement in Ethiopia should be of concern to Israel, as it will surely use these drones for political influence and terror.
When I reported in Tigray before the conflict, especially in its rural areas, people were often leading subsistence lives, not dissimilar to how it must have been in the Middle Ages. It is beyond incongruous to imagine armed drones now buzzing above those simple societies.
But, then again, that’s exactly what happened in Afghanistan. Ancient and modern civilisations clashed. And we are still painfully drudging through the fallout.
James Jeffrey is a freelance writer and former British Army officer who served for nine years in Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan