Decoding the patterns of drone strikes in Ethiopia

By Daniel Kassahun
Ethiopia’s ongoing war, characterized by complex historical roots, has undergone a seismic shift in power dynamics with the arrival of fighter drones. This piece explores the intricate relationship between these unmanned aerial vehicles and the trajectory of the conflict, revealing their profound impact on both the battlefield and the broader geopolitical landscape.
A storm tearing through a field
As the Law and Order Campaign raged, the government proclaimed the Tigrian forces’ disarray spread like wildfire. But these rumors were soon to be silenced. In a stunning display of resilience and reorganization, the Tigray Defense Force (TDF) rose from the ashes, reclaiming Mekele within a mere seven months. Their subsequent retaliatory strikes into neighboring regions were swift and decisive, a potent response to the atrocities inflicted upon Tigrayans: killings, attacks, and robberies.
With the capture of strategic cities like Dessie and Kombolcha, a sense of awe settled upon both supporters and detractors of the TDF. The Ethiopian National Defense Forces (ENDF) appeared powerless to stop them, their once formidable presence seemingly crumbling before the TDF’s relentless advance. History whispered in the ears of many, reminding them of past leaders who met their downfall after capturing these very cities. The conclusion was stark: Addis Ababa Palace seemed a mere formality, the inevitable final domino to fall.
General Tsadkan Gebretensae, the commander of TDF, boldly declared, ‘The balance of forces is now completely in our favor, and we will soon control Addis Ababa’ and “the war is over.”Such statements signaled TDF’s success was a foregone conclusion.
The TDF’s expanding territorial control starkly contrasted the considerate approach they once displayed during the 80s and early 90s. Notably absent was their former humility and respect for civilians and property. Public trust and alliances became less of a concern, replaced by a scorched-earth policy. Reports of executions, rapes, plundering, and the destruction of public facilities began to haunt their path.
A twist of fate
With the ENDF outmatched against the TDF, the government’s desperation escalated. A call to arms echoed across the nation, urging citizens to arm themselves with confiscated TDF weapons and join the fight. This, coupled with simmering discontent, fueled the resistance of the Amhara Fano and militia, who fiercely opposed the TDF advance. As the TDF marched into North Shoa, the flames of resistance reached their peak, exemplified by Eshete Moges’ heroic stand in Shewa Robit.
But fate, it seems, had other plans. In a stunning reversal of fortunes, the TDF’s southward thrust abruptly shifted northwards, retreating back into the Tigray region. The media hailed it as a ‘miraculous turnaround,’ leaving the world to wonder what had caused this sudden and dramatic shift.
A lifeline thrown in the hour of need
Fear gripped Abu Dhabi as the TDF surged, threatening Dr. Abiy’s reign. Six drones, plucked from the UAE’s potent arsenal, arrived with perfect timing, tilting the battlefield in a heartbeat. Dominating the skies, they shifted the war’s trajectory. General Tsadkan confessed to the New York Times that up to ten drones hovered, crippling the TDF’s supply lines. While the Amhara’s role deserves recognition, this account shines a spotlight on the drones’ decisive intervention.
Talks of drones dispersing Tigray forces surfaced immediately after the 2020 capture of Mekele, later confirmed by General Tsadkan. After several months, the drone narrative resurfaced as the TDF captured Mekele and marched towards Addis Ababa. Did Ethiopia possess these drones during the Rule of Law campaign? Getachew Reda’s tweet alleging UAE-supplied drones based in Assab remains the only concrete evidence. While its full veracity is shrouded in uncertainty, satellite data from Assab Air Base hints at a kernel of truth.
Fortunes flipped
The drone revolution roars globally, its impact echoing beyond the Ethiopian conflict. Despite the vulnerability exposed in Somalia’s “Black Hawk Down,” US drones have rewritten the war narrative, particularly against al-Shabaab. Major conflicts like Ukraine-Russia and Azerbaijan-Armenia witnessed rapid territorial gains countered by the swift deployment of drone technology. In Ukraine, drones integrated into military tactics, targeting Russia’s infrastructure, eroded Russian morale. Azerbaijan, wielding Turkish-made drones, reclaimed Nagorno-Karabakh after 29 years. Drones, no longer confined to altering national destinies, have become tools for various groups and non-state actors. Hamas, for instance, used drones to cripple Israel’s surveillance networks, inflicting casualties and abductions. This evolving role of drones marks a paradigm shift in modern warfare.
Observational acumen is not commonplace
Foreign media peeled back the “secretive” layers of Ethiopia’s drone program, exposing their Turkish, Iranian, and Chinese origins, bolstered by UAE support. Control stations in Harar Meda (Bishoftu), Bahir Dar, Semera, and Asosa were laid bare, inadvertently revealed through the Prime Minister’s own social media posts.
Analysts devoured these photos, deciphering clues about drone models and cross-referencing them to pinpoint specific types at each station. Smartphone metadata confirmed Semera Airport’s involvement. High-resolution reconnaissance satellites, like Airbus and Planet Sky, played a pivotal role, capturing detailed data that aligned with on-the-ground observations.
The U.S. Congress’ ban on high-resolution images, lifted in 2020, doesn’t affect Ethiopia. Commercial satellites, peering down with resolutions as detailed as 30 centimeters, offer sensitive military information to allies and adversaries alike.
Show your cards and lose the game
While a show of strength can bolster allies and intimidate rivals, revealing all is a dangerous game. Ethiopia’s exposed drones, readily tracked at airports, have lost their cloak of surprise. Leaving these costly assets vulnerable to scrutiny is a gamble, especially given the keen eyes of historical adversaries.
Among the suspected drone contributors, Iran stands out, facing US trade sanctions. Ethiopia is now grappling with the consequences of allegedly deploying an Iranian-made drone in Samara, a significant development. While human rights abuses during the rigged 2005 election drew no repercussions, Ethiopia’s expulsion from AGOA during the Tigray war highlights the sting of exposed drone secrets. This loss translates to millions in missed employment opportunities and a diminished foreign investment appeal.
The UN Security Council’s push for sanctions against Ethiopia suggests motives beyond a mere “bias towards Tigray.” The unmasked truth of Ethiopia’s drone program has unleashed a series of consequences, revealing the double-edged sword of a public display of strength.
The share of drone strikes in the big regions
While initially confined to the Tigray conflict, drone warfare swiftly expanded its reach to the Oromia and Amhara regions. ACLED, a meticulous chronicler of global conflict, provides detailed information on drone activity, including locations, dates, casualties, and combatants. This analysis dives into the data, revealing the geographic patterns of drone deployment.
A total of 125 documented drone attacks have been recorded, with eight occurring before the Tigray War and the remaining 117 during and after. As Figure 1 illustrates, the Tigray region bore the brunt of the attacks, with 61 total strikes concentrated in areas like South Tigray, Northwest Tigray, Central Tigray, and Eastern Tigray. Notably, the controversial Wolkait, a site of intense ground battles, remained untouched by drone strikes.
The Amhara region experienced 37 drone attacks, 23 of which coincided with the TDF’s expansion into the region. North Wolo, West Gojam, and North Shoa were targeted in these strikes. Interestingly, drone attacks in Oromia, primarily focused in West Oromia where OLF-Shene is active (West Wellega, West Showa, East Wollega, and the Special Zone of Oromia), received far less media attention compared to Tigray and Amhara.
Figure 2 reveals the temporal evolution of drone attacks, with 51 in 2021, 53 in 2022, and 13 in 2023. Notably, the targets shifted over time. Initially concentrated on TDF locations in Tigray and Amhara in 2021, the focus broadened to include Oromia in 2022. In 2023, the rise of Fano militants in the Amhara region drew drone attacks back to the region. This dual campaign in Amhara highlights the potential for escalation and the complex web of actors involved in the current conflict.
Worn-out places bear the scar.
Digging beneath the surface of drone attacks in Ethiopia reveals a stark reality. The drone-based battlegrounds share a common thread: harsh landscapes with mountainous terrain and degraded soil. Such conditions hamper mechanized forces, rendering them vulnerable and making drone warfare an enticing option.
Beyond the physical challenges, these regions face social struggles. Overpopulation and limited farmland fuel food insecurity, a constant threat to the communities. Droughts and famines add another layer of hardship, leaving the people perpetually vulnerable.
Historically, the drone-struck regions of Amhara and Tigray have undergone various forms of conflict. External invasions and internal strife have left deep scars on the land and its people. We can cite the battles of Magdala, Adwa, Segele, Maichew, TPLF/EPRDF, etc.
But amidst the darkness, a glimmer of hope shines. The vast sky over southern Ethiopia is a beacon, a haven for passenger planes and rain-bearing clouds. It reminds us that despite immense hardship, there is always a chance for renewal and a brighter future.
The collateral damage.
Though heralded for their precision and efficiency, combat drones cast a long shadow. Misinterpretation of their images can unleash tragedy, striking down innocent lives with the push of a button. Tyrants wield them as instruments of oppression, silencing dissent and eliminating rivals with impunity in the absence of accountability.
Ethiopia’s drone program stands shrouded in controversy. Reports of civilian casualties inflicted by these unmanned aerial vehicles across Tigray, Oromia, and Amhara regions have been met with silence from the government, despite condemnations from international bodies and influential nations. The question of responsibility hangs heavy, unaddressed, and unresolved, a stark reminder of the dark side of drone warfare.
The societal perks of drones.
Beyond warfare, drones can be powerful tools for good. In arid lands where herders roam, they can find hidden oases and lush pastures, guiding communities to life-giving resources. In disputed territories, their impartial gaze can map tensions and offer neutral information, paving the way for peace. And when shadows hide danger, drones with thermal sensors can detect landmines, safeguard lives, and clear paths to a safer future.
At last, the game will be over the sky.
While fighter drones offer undeniable advantages, their uncontrolled use by governments like Ethiopia raises grave ethical and legal concerns. The sense of invincibility they confer on governments fuels an arms race, with African nations eager to acquire their drone arsenals. However, this dominance may be fleeting. Insurgent groups like Hezbollah, ISIS, Hamas, Boko Haram, and the Houthis are increasingly gaining access to similar technology. This proliferation among rebel groups carries the terrifying potential to escalate localized conflicts into full-blown wars, with devastating civilian casualties.
To prevent such a catastrophe, a paradigm shift is essential. Governments must prioritize the well-being of their citizens by fostering democracy, protecting human rights, and guaranteeing peace. Blindly relying on drone supremacy, once effective, may prove inadequate in the face of rapidly evolving technology and shifting power dynamics.

Figure 1: Regional distribution of drone attacks in Ethiopia

Figure 2: Distribution of drone attacks in the last three years

Dr. Daniel Kassahun is an Associate Professor of Geography at Austin College, Texas, specializing in GIS, offers occasional perspectives on the spatial dimensions of environmental and socioeconomic affairs in Ethiopia. For inquiries, contact him at daniel.kassahun@gmail.com.

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