Africa in the drone zone

Countries in sub-Saharan Africa are now using an ever-increasing fleet of small and tactical unmanned air vehicles (UAVs), which will soon be augmented by Mauritania fielding its first medium altitude long endurance (MALE) platform. Erwan de Cherisey reports.

The capabilities offered by drones for surveillance, air strike, and covert reconnaissance are increasingly appealing to a growing range of African militaries confronting threats, whether they be from terrorists in the Sahel or armed militants operating in forested areas.
Mauritania, for example, has made significant efforts over the last few years to strengthen its military capabilities, with a strong focus on air power, including intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) aircraft.
In late 2018, several news reports citing Mauritanian military sources confirmed the purchase of an undisclosed number of Chinese-made UAVs, which have since been identified as CASC CH-4s.
The aircraft are to be used in support of the G5 Sahel (which comprises Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger) joint anti-terrorist force and in ongoing border security efforts.
The Senegalese Army fields an unknown number of Israeli-made tactical UAVs, which were deployed into The Gambia in January 2017 to support the Economic Community of West African States’ (ECOWAS)-led military deployment to install democratically elected President Adama Barrow.
The specific UAV type in service is unknown, although unconfirmed reports mention the Elbit Systems Skylark 2. Commercial quadcopters are also in use with the Intervention Group of the Senegalese Gendarmerie (GIGN).
In 2014, the General Directorate for External Research (DGRE), Cameroon’s leading intelligence agency, deployed a handful of small UAVs in the far north as part of the military build-up against Boko Haram. These were operated in close liaison with the elite troops of the rapid intervention battalions (BIR).
The capabilities they offered were not lost on the BIR, which decided to set up its own UAV component. An Aeronautics Orbiter 2 small UAV system, comprising several aircraft, was procured, together with a number of commercial Dji Phantom quadcopter mini UAVs, which entered service in 2015 with the newly formed BIR Air Observation Group (GOA), based at Maroua-Salak.
That same year, a US foreign military sales (FMS) order for a Boeing Insitu ScanEagle tactical UAV system was placed. The system, comprising a control station, a relay station, a simulator, and six UAVs, started operating from Maroua-Salak in November 2016.
Electro-optical (EO) and infrared (IR) payloads can be fitted to the aircraft, which are capable of operating by day and night and have an endurance exceeding 24 hours, although the severe heat prevailing during daylight in the dry season tends to reduce it.
An order for an Aeronautics Orbiter 3 system was subsequently placed, with operators training in Israel in October 2017, ahead of its delivery in March 2018. The system, which comprises several aircraft and a control station, is based in Waza, more than 100km northeast of Maroua.
The Orbiter 3 is a significant improvement over the Orbiter 2, featuring a longer range – exceeding 120km – a greater endurance of seven to eight hours, and a heavier payload of 5.5kg.
The GOA has also acquired several Dji Mavic Pro aircraft, which have replaced most Phantoms in the far north. Several Dji Inspire 2s have also been received. These small UAVs are fielded by different battalions, providing them with short-range reconnaissance and perimeter security.
A couple of Dji Matrice 600 Pros have also been procured and are deployed in the southwest region, where a separatist armed insurgency has developed since late 2016.
One of the roles assigned to the GOA and its UAVs is supporting artillery strikes. In 2015 and 2016, the Orbiter 2s were used to pinpoint large concentrations of Boko Haram militants, transferring their coordinates to the Cameroonian Army’s 155mm howitzers batteries, which hit these.
To date, Nigeria is the only country in sub-Saharan Africa to field armed drones and to have used them in combat.
The Nigerian Air Force’s (NAF’s) first drones were a number (some sources say nine) of Israeli-made Aeronautics Aerostar tactical UAVs, which were procured in 2006. Their service history was plagued by issues resulting from poor maintenance and lack of training. They were progressively grounded, to such an extent that Nigerian media reported that, by 2014, none were operational.
While the Aerostar appears to have now been withdrawn from use, Nigeria received a major capability boost in the shape of the Chinese-made CASC CH-3A armed tactical UAV, which was delivered in 2014. The exact number procured remains unconfirmed but should comprise at least five aircraft.
The type came to prominence after photographs of a crashed example, still carrying an AR-1 missile and what may have been a guided bomb, appeared on social media.
The NAF has since acknowledged the use of its CH-3As in several air strikes against Boko Haram. To supplement these and increase self-reliance, it started developing its own UAV, the Gulma, which bore an external resemblance to the Aerostar and was first unveiled in 2013.
The type was used as a testbed to gain experience in UAV technology and eventually evolved into the more advanced Tsaigumi. The latter was designed with assistance from Portuguese company UAVision. While the NAF produced the airframe, UAVision provided the avionics suite and telemetry equipment.
The Tsaigumi was first unveiled in February 2018 and is intended for tactical surveillance.
The NAF has announced that it is working on an armed UAV, known as Ichoku, although progress on this project remains unknown.
Nigeria has its own UAV pilot training capability as part of the 401st Flying Training School of Kaduna. The latter fields Chinese-made Mugin commercial UAVs for initial training. More advanced training is then conducted on tactical UAVs.
In 2018, the first home-grown UAV pilots completed training after clocking nearly 100 flying hours on the CH-3A.
Ethiopia is known to have procured UAVs from Israeli company, BlueBird, in 2011. No details of the order have been made public, although two types should have been received: the Spylite electric mini UAS, and the now discontinued Boomerang.
Other elements of the contract should have included setting up a local maintenance facility and providing technology transfer of an unknown nature.
No images of Ethiopian BlueBird UAVs have been released and it remains unclear whether these were delivered and if so, whether they have ever been deployed to Somalia under the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), or with any of the United Nations peacekeeping operations, to which Ethiopia contributes troops.
In 2013, the Sudan Tribune ran a story claiming that Ethiopia had built its first UAV. A picture released on social networks showed what appeared to be a MALE UAV being manufactured at an Ethiopian military factory. This claim has so far not been verified.
Kenya ordered a ScanEagle UAV system under a $9.8 million FMS announced in September 2015. It is unclear when the system was delivered and which of the Kenya Defence Forces’ (KDF) service branches is fielding it, although it is possible that it is operated by the KDF Military Intelligence Battalion.
The only acknowledgment of its operational use came in March 2017, when a Kenya Army officer disclosed that the UAV had been used to support an attack by Kenyan and Somali forces against Al Shabaab. In this instance, the UAV was used to detect and monitor enemy forces, providing GPS coordinates, which were used to direct artillery strikes ahead of an air attack conducted by Army helicopters, followed by a ground forces mop-up.
The Kenyan Army also operates the Aerovironment RQ-11B Raven small UAV. The US Government donated several examples for use in Somalia in 2012. The type is believed to be in service with the KDF Military Intelligence Battalion, which has received training in its use from US military personnel.
Sudan is known to field Iranian-made HESA Ababil series UAVs, several of which have been brought down or have crashed as part of combat operations conducted in Darfur, and now South Sudan, over the past decade.
Uganda bought several RQ-11Bs from the US for use in Somalia. It also reportedly placed an order for the Aeronautics Orbiter II UAV in 2011. It remains unknown whether the latter has been delivered.
Botswana is one of the oldest UAV operators in sub-Saharan Africa. In 2001, it placed its first order for a number of Israeli Silver Arrow Micro-V small UAVs.
In 2004, a contract for the Elbit Systems Hermes 450 medium tactical UAV was signed. To date, no pictures of Botswana’s UAVs have ever been released.
It is likely that the different platforms in service are operated by the Botswana Defence Force Air Wing for border surveillance and counter-poaching.
South Africa was the first operator of military UAVs in sub-Saharan Africa, developing its own platforms in the late 1980s. The then Kentron (now Denel) Seeker was used operationally in Angola by the South African Air Force (SAAF) 10th Squadron.
In 1990, the unit was disbanded and the UAVs returned to Kentron, which continued operating them in support of the military. By the mid-1990s, the aircraft were withdrawn. Denel developed the Seeker into the Seeker 2 and then the Seeker 200, eventually unveiling the Seeker 400 in 2008. The latter, which has a 16 hours’ endurance, was sold to an undisclosed first customer in 2015, believed to be the South African Defence Intelligence unit. It is unclear whether the SAAF is to play any role in its operation though.
Small UAVs are also in service with the South African Army, which fields the Indiza, locally developed by the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, and which is reportedly being deployed in the DRC with South African peacekeepers.
Zambia is the latest country in southern Africa to equip itself with UAVs. In late 2017, the then deputy commander of the Zambian Air Force (ZAF) confirmed that Hermes 450 UAVs had been received and were based at Mumbwa Air Force Base.
It is unclear how many have been procured, although footage of the type in ZAF service shows it is equipped with a satellite antenna.