Sudan’s Drones Are Dropping Like Flies

Recon UAV is the latest Iranian-made hardware to fall into rebels’ hands


The Sudan People’s Liberation Movement North rebel group claims it has shot down a drone belonging to the Sudanese government.

Evidence from this and earlier shoot-downs and crashes indicates that the robot is Iranian-made—and that Khartoum has access to Tehran’s wider portfolio of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles.

It’s worth noting that Sudan is under an U.N. arms embargo. No lawful state should be sending the Sudanese regime drones—or any other weaponry. But Iran is becoming the UAV supplier of choice for embargoed states. Syria, too, appears to possess Iranian robots.

Khartoum and Tehran have a long history of military cooperation. Sudan is a major customer for Iran’s arms manufacturers—and is also an important geographic link in the smuggling chain that transports Iranian weaponry to Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip.

Revolutionary Iran has supplied UAVs to Sudan since at least 2008, when Africa Confidential was able to confirm the downing of an Iranian Ghods Ababil-3 over the western province of Darfur.

Ababil UAV. Photo via Wikipedia

At that time, Khartoum reportedly possessed at least three Ababil drones, including the downed one. The Ababils are probably Iran’s most advanced drones, although the model lost over Darfur was an older one.

The prop-driven Ababil launches from a fixed or mobile platform and can land conventionally or via parachute. The Ababil normally carries a camera for reconnaissance, but it can also haul a warhead.

There’s a catch. The drone can’t drop the warhead—it must crash itself into the target, like a cruise missile.

Another Ababil went down in Sudan 2012, possibly leaving just one from the original batch. But Khartoum apparently purchased more UAVs.

The drone the SPLM-N recovered last month may well be an Ababil, as well. But Sudan also fields another type of drone presumably of Iranian origin—this one less well-known.

The Zagil UAV was first confirmed active in Sudan in 2012, when rebels in the Nuba Mountains shot one down. Sudan Sentinel Project analyzed the incident in detail.

The drone bears a striking resemblance to another robot that rebels recovered in 2013. The Zagil seems to be Iranian, even though it is not in widespread use in Iran proper. Its motor and rotor assembly are practically identical to those on the Iranian Ghods Mohajer, but its body and wing layout are markedly different.

Sudan Sentinel Project traced the model to a design allegedly developed by two Iranian students in 2007 and showcased in a video by the Iranian news channel Press TV.

Apart from touting its ability to shoot photos and video for reconnaissance purposes, Iranian media also claims the UAV can “reciprocate enemy fire with launching grenades,” although none of the drones recovered in Sudan seem to possess this capability.

The obscure Iranian UAV in Sudanese air force use.

All told, the Sudanese air force has lost no fewer than six drones in recent years—most of them shot down. It’s unclear how many of the planes remain in Sudanese service.

They seem to exclusively conduct reconnaissance. Rebels and the Sudan Sentinel Project allege that the UAVs scout out the civilian population to help guide Sudan’s well-documented aerial attacks.

The frequent sightings of Iranian drones make it clear that Khartoum remains heavily dependent on foreign know-how for its military capabilities. Iran is a major partner, but China and Russia are equally important.

Peter Dörrie is a freelance journalist covering African resource and security politics. You can follow him on Twitter at @peterdoerrie. Sign up for a daily War is Boring email update here. Subscribe to WIB’s RSS feed here and follow the main page here.