by ADAM RAWNSLEY
The wreckage of an armed drone turned up in northeast Nigeria on Tuesday near the epicenter of the West African country’s violent Islamist insurgency.
The drone looks Chinese. And that’s a very big deal.
Pictures of the wreckage posted on Twitter show an unmanned combat aerial vehicle that closely resembles the CH-3 drone made by the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation. Missiles fixed to two hardpoints and a sensor payload are all apparent in the images.
Reports place the crash near the village of Dumge in Nigeria’s northeast Borno state.
China’s CH-3 drone, which made its debut at the 2008 Zhuhai Air Show, can reportedly carry two laser-guided AR-1 air-to-ground missiles, similar to the U.S. Hellfire missile.
If the drone is indeed Chinese, it could be there to aid Nigeria’s war against Islamist group Boko Haram.
Nigeria has aggressively sought aircraft to help wage a counterinsurgency war against the terror group.
In the wake of Boko Haram’s highly-publicized kidnapping of more than 270 schoolgirls in the spring of 2014, Nigerian president Goodluck Jonathan asked parliament for an extra billion dollars — on top of the $6 billion in the country’s defense budget — to pay for new military hardware.
Nigeria’s military hoped that a sale of Cobra helicopter gunships from Israel would provide the new air power. But The New York Times reported that U.S. pressure on Israel to nix the deal ended the proposed sale last summer.
According to the Times, the U.S. doubted the Nigerian military’s ability to maintain the helicopters—or take proper care to avoid civilian casualties with their use.
Concerns about the Nigerian military’s human rights records have complicated America’s efforts to work with Abuja in its fight against Islamist terrorism. Commandos from U.S. Army Africa offered to train Nigerian commandos. But in early December, the U.S. abruptly canceled a training program because of mounting discomfort with the Nigerian military’s human rights abuses.
In August, Amnesty International released footage of what appeared to be Nigerian soldiers conducting summary executions of suspected Boko Haram members in the country’s northeast.
But for all of Washington’s hesitance about providing weapons and training to Nigeria’s military, there’s other suppliers in the arms market who are less discriminating about who they sell to. China’s development of sophisticated and—relatively—cheaper drones has also encouraged customers in the developing world.
“The United States doesn’t export many attack drones, so we’re taking advantage of that hole in the market,” a Chinese aerospace official once told The Washington Post.
China reportedly offered to sell the CH-3 UCAV to Pakistan. Pakistan has since produced two drones, the Burraq and Shahpar, which appear very similar to the CH-3, although officials claim to have developed the aircraft indigenously.
Officials from China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation have stated that the company developed the CH-4—another UCAV in the company’s family of drones—with exports in mind. Algeria has expressed interest in purchasing the aircraft.
There are also rumors that China sold the Pterodactyl, a medium-altitude, long-endurance drone which bears a striking resemblance to America’s Predator drone, to some five countries, including Uzbekistan and the United Arab Emirates.
The Yilong is capable of carrying air-to-ground missiles and guided bombs.
But despite the similarities in appearance between China’s CH-3 UCAV and the wreckage in Nigeria, confirmation of a sale between the two countries is still lacking.
Regardless, the presence of an apparently armed drone in the midst of Nigeria’s conflict with Islamist rebels illustrates that UAVs are an increasingly in-demand weapon—and that further proliferation is likely.