Drones have turned the tables in recent African wars

  • Iranian drones recently supplied to Sudan are making an impact in its brutal civil war.
  • Ethiopia’s government prevailed against Tigray rebels in 2021 thanks in large part to drones.
  • Drones are proliferating, and so are the harm they cause to civilians, an expert warns.

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Drones are turning the tide in Africa’s wars in another sign of their effectiveness on the cheap and the proliferating dangers that come with them.

Drones recently supplied to Sudan by Iran are already making an impact in that country’s brutal civil war. Similar types of drones played decisive roles in turning the tables in two previous African civil wars in recent years and could do so again.

Iranian Mohajer-6 drones have already been credited with giving the Sudanese Armed Forces an edge over their paramilitary opponent, the Rapid Support Forces, in the conflict that has been raging in that country since April 2023. The single-engine Iranian drone is capable of performing intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance operations and launching air-to-ground attacks using small Iranian-made Qaem guided bombs.

Drones supplied by Iran, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates to Ethiopia were previously credited with enabling the Ethiopian government to prevail during its internal war against Tigray rebels in 2021.

Turkey’s deployment of Bayraktar TB2 drones to Libya helped the internationally recognized government in Tripoli launch a decisive counteroffensive in 2020 against the renegade Libyan National Army, which had besieged Tripoli. At around $5 million each, the TB2 drone is a tremendous aid to a country without much of an air force and against an opponent lacking air defenses.

Remi Dodd, geopolitical analyst at the risk intelligence company RANE, believes it’s “certainly possible” that Sudan’s new drones could achieve similar results.

“The Sudanese Armed Forces (i.e., the side that benefited from drone deliveries from Iran) were on the back foot in late 2023, but they have been able to make some gains in the city of Omdurman in February, which coincides with the timing of drone deliveries from Tehran,” Dodd told Business Insider.

“What is unclear is whether drone deliveries from Iran will be sufficiently large to turn the tide as it did in Ethiopia or Libya, given US efforts to interdict Iranian shipments of drone technology in the Red Sea over concerns that these could be destined to the Houthis in Yemen,” Dodd said.

Drones have spread widely to armies and militant groups. James Patton Rogers, the executive director of the Cornell Brooks Tech Policy Institute at Cornell University and author of Precision: A History of American Warfare, noted that at least 113 nation-states and 65 non-state actors have access to various types of weaponized drones.

“It should come as no surprise that these drones are being used in wars around the world,” Rogers told BI. “However, just like with any weapons system, the impact these drones will have on the outcome of a conflict depends on the political ambitions of the warring parties and the types of war being fought.”

“In Ukraine, drones are just a part of a conventional state versus state conflict, with vast land, sea, and air components, where both sides have access to advanced drone and air defense systems. In this context, drones are useful to achieve specific objectives, but they will not win the war alone,” Rogers said.

“In Ethiopia, however, the Tigray War was a very different type of conflict — a civil war — where only one side had access to military drones and used them decisively to stop an armed convoy of Tigray rebels heading to the capital to overthrow the government,” Rogers added.

In recent years, Ethiopia acquired several drone types, including the Mohajer-6, Turkey’s TB2, and the Chinese-made Wing Loong II. As with the Mohajer-6, these Turkish and Chinese drones can conduct reconnaissance and strike ground targets with guided munitions. These drones are potentially deadly against an opponent without sufficient air defenses.

Tigray leader Debretsion Gebremichael admitted that “drones provided by foreign powers” compelled him to withdraw.

“As such, it can be argued in a certain context, drones have helped decide the outcome of the conflict, even the fate of nations,” Rogers said.

RANE’s Dodd also credited Ethiopia’s drone procurements for decisively “turning the tide” of the Tigray War.

“While the Tigray People’s Liberation Front was less than 150 km from Addis Ababa in November 2021, the government’s greater use of drones not only enabled it to prevent the Tigrayan rebels to make further advances towards the capital, but helped it push the TPLF back all the way into Tigray and ultimately secure a peace agreement on favorable terms,” Dodd said.

Remains of Qaem munitions used by the Mohajer-6 and the MAM-L munitions the TB2 fires were found in the Tigray region.

A Ukrainian drone operator from the 24th separate mechanized brigade driving a drone near New York, Donetsk, Ukraine on August 8, 2023.

Anadolu/Getty Images

Russia’s war against Ukraine has seen widespread use of drones, from advanced attack drones able to fly deep into enemy territory to cheap hobby quadcopters rigged with explosives. With combat aviation largely absent from the battlefield fight, attritable drones have so far proved both essential and not decisive.

“There is still lots of work to be done on when, where, and how drones provide a decisive capacity in war. Indeed, the topic has generated a lot of ongoing debate,” Rogers said.

Nevertheless, drones have clearly offered a novel option for nations incapable of deploying considerable airpower.

“Drones might not be as ‘revolutionary’ for states with long-standing air forces, but for those with minimal airpower capabilities, the drone provides the ability to strike with a reliable precision strike capacity against targets over a great distance,” Rogers said.

Consequently, when drones are used against adversaries who lack similar capabilities or sufficient air defenses, it can result in a turkey shoot.

Rogers views conflicts in Libya, Ethiopia, and Sudan as merely the start of “our new proliferated drone world.”

“We need only look at the reported incidents of civilian harm taking place in Nigeria, DRC (Democratic Republic of Congo), and Burkina Faso by the state use of drones to see how drones can be misused,” Rogers said. “Indeed, there needs to be much more pressure from the international community to ensure nations are not utilizing drones as a seemingly ‘easy way’ to quell political dissent and oppress sections of society.”

“I am, however, far from optimistic,” Rogers added. “My worry is that without robust enforcement of international law, it won’t be long before ‘drone atrocities’ are a disturbingly common part of modern civil wars.”

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Paul Iddon