A peculiar military VTOL drone drone armed with two 120mm mortar rounds was shot down by the Sudanese armed forces. The type have been seen in several conflict across the Middle East and Africa over the years.
The unique drone was operated by the Sudanese paramilitary forces; the Rapid Support Force (RSF) in it’s fight in Sudan before it was shot down last year.
The UAE is known to be supplying arms to both the RSF and the Sudanese Army since 2014. These weapons reportedly include small arms, ammunition, drones, and armoured vehicles. The UAE has also reportedly trained members of the RSF in the use of these weapons.
Weapons supplied to both sides include Zastava-produced M05 rifles, Nimr Ajbans armoured vehicles (for the RSF), and Calidus MCAV (for the Sudanese Army),
Also, in December 2023, footage emerged of thermobaric shells apparently supplied by the United Arab Emirates to the RSF and captured by the military. Video showing crates of the 120mm thermobaric airdrop shells with markings suggesting they manufactured by the Serbian company Yugoimport, in 2020, and bearing UAE markings on its packaging. Notably, this ammunition was designed to be launched from drones.
Yugoimport SDPR is a Serbian state-owned defence company and represents the Government and military industrial complex of Serbia in the sphere of importation and exportation cooperation of defence equipment and related services. It is the largest company in the country’s defence industry.
According to a report published by Middle East Eye in 2015, the UAE secured weapons and ammunition through a $200 million contract with Yugoimport and the United Arab Emirates Advanced Research and Technology Holding Company (EARTH).
Abu Dhabi acquired these drones in 2015 through a contract worth 200 million dollars with the Serbian company Yugoimport SDPR and the Emirates Advanced Research and Technology Holding (EARTH).
The same drone were used in October 2021 when the Ethiopian army used it during the conflict in the Tigray region. The drone was also found in Yemen after the Houthi militia claimed to have downed it in 2021.
The Emirati-supplied drone was modified by adding two tubes to enable it to carry shells and drop them in a manner similar to dumb bombs.
This technique requires the drone to fly at a low altitude, making it vulnerable to ground fire. Based on these facts, the Rapid Support Forces used Emirati drones to target Sudanese individuals; these drones transported through Amdjarass in Chad were equipped with ammunition labeled “Emirates.” Similar drones have been observed in Yemen and Ethiopia before.
In 2013, Yugoimport SDPR, Serbia’s largest defence company, and the Emirates Advanced Research and Technology Holding (EARTH) signed a $267.8 million deal on the joint development of the Advanced Light Attack System (ALAS), an anti-tank missile defense system. Serbia profits by having its weaponry in Middle Eastern markets, while the UAE acquires a source of weaponry and an ability to distribute it to its allies in various regional conflicts.
Sudan’s capital, Khartoum, has been mired in violence since April 15, when fighting broke out between the army and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces after relations broke down between military leader General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan and RSF chief General Mohamed Hamdan Degalo.
Last year, Sudan’s military began an offensive against the paramilitary Rapid Support Force (RSF). This offensive aims to retake key areas that were under the control of the RSF, a powerful and controversial paramilitary group in the country.
With massive artillery strikes and air raids targeting strategic RSF installations and troop clusters, the military’s actions mark a crucial turning point in Sudan’s ongoing political landscape.
Since the RSF usually confiscate captured equipment belonging to the Sudan armed forces whenever they overrun a military position it base, however, Sudan is not known operate this type of drone.
Mystery VTOL drone in Yemen
The Serbian Yugoimport drones are identical in design to two UCAVs that were shot down by Houthi forces in Yemen in 2020.
Both the UAE and Saudi Arabia backs the RSF, and Hemedti has sought to cultivate close ties with the two countries. For instance, he sent RSF troops to fight against Iran-aligned Houthis in Yemen to serve Saudi interests, and in Libya to serve those of the UAE. In 2016–2017, RSF had 40,000 members participating in the Yemeni Civil War. In late October 2019, 10,000 had returned to Sudan.
Mystery VTOL drone in Ethiopia
Likewise, the Serbian Yugoimport drone was also spotted in use by the Ethiopian National Defence Force in 2021 during the civil war with the Tygray Defence Force.
Since the United Arab Emirates (UAE) was a staunch supporter of the Ethiopian government of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed during the recent civil war with the Tygray force.
The drone was supplied to Ethiopian forces. Photographs reportedly taken in June 2021 in the Tigray Region appears to show Emirati-supplied UCAV being handled by Ethiopian soldiers.
At the time, open-source aircraft tracking websites recorded more than 50 cargo flights to Ethiopia in 53 days between August and September 2021. The flights were carried out by an Il-76 cargo aircraft registered in Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan but owned by UAE-based company Fly Sky Airlines. 45 of these flights originated from the UAE.
The same freight carrier had previously been used to deliver equipment to Libya.
Also, photographs of the armed UAVs said to have been taken in the Maychew area of the Tigray region showed the VTOL drone in Ethiopian inventory.
The modification allowed for the carriage of two heavy 120mm ordnance, two large tubes were fitted to either side of the drone in which the mortar rounds are contained during flight. After finding a suitable target, the mortar rounds are released by remote control and plummet to their target essentially like dumb bombs.
This is a highly inaccurate means of targeting even when dropped from low altitude inevitably limits the drones’ effectiveness to attacking stationary targets or large groups of infantry. In order to achieve the accuracy needed to strike even such simple targets, the rounds would have to be dropped from low altitude. This in turn makes the UCAV vulnerable to ground fire.
According to the Sudanese military forces, they intend to study the armed VTOL drone, and identify the supplier. This may likely result in a diplomatic face-off with the UAE.
UAE’s involvement in supplying drones to the Rapid Support Force (RSF) in Sudan has raised concerns and sparked controversy.
The UAE supplying the RSF with armed drones, provides them with a significant technological advantage over the Sudanese Armed Forces. These drones, equipped with surveillance and weapon systems, have allowed the RSF to conduct targeted strikes on opposition groups and maintain a dominant position in the ongoing conflict.
The provision of advanced drones to the RSF risks further escalating the ongoing conflict between the Sudanese government and armed opposition groups. The RSF’s ability to conduct precise and deadly aerial strikes can exacerbate violence, increase civilian casualties, and hinder prospects for a peaceful resolution.
In the same vein, the RSF has been implicated in numerous human rights abuses, including widespread violence against civilians. The use of advanced drones may exacerbate these abuses, as their remote nature can create a sense of detachment and reduce accountability. This raises serious concerns about the potential for indiscriminate targeting and disproportionate use of force by the RSF.
The involvement of external actors, such as the UAE, in supplying drones to a paramilitary force in Sudan adds an additional layer of complexity to an already volatile region. It can contribute to the proliferation of armed drone technology and potentially spark a regional arms race, further destabilizing neighboring countries and undermining peace and security.
The UAE’s provision of drones to the RSF in Sudan has brought attention to the intersection of drone technology, conflicts, and human rights.
In a similar pattern, Russia-linked private mercenary group Wagner has been accused of provided military hardware like surface-to-air missile system to the RSF.
Although the report did not specify the type of surface-to-air missile system Wagner Group supplies to the RSF, however, it may likely be man portable (MANPAD), or short range air defence.
A few weeks ago, the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) shot down a Russian-made MiG-29 fighter jet over Khartoum, the capital city on Tuesday.
This incident marks a significant escalation in the ongoing conflict, as it highlights the military capabilities of the RSF and the increasing international involvement in Sudan’s internal affairs.
But Yevgeny Prigozhin Wagner’s leader has denied the accusations severally saying they do not operate in Sudan. The denial comes in response to reports by Western diplomats in Khartoum in March 2022 that the company was involved in illicit gold mining in Sudan and other activities.
Sudan’s RSF has also denied the reports of the Wagner Group’s involvement in the country. The government has stated that it is committed to maintaining peace and stability in the country and has called for an investigation into the reports.