Israeli Arms In Ethiopia: The Thunder IMV

By Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans

The time when the Ethiopian National Defence Force (ENDF) almost solely relied on aging Soviet armament mixed in with some of their more modern Russian brethens is long gone. Over the past decade, Ethiopia has diversified its arms imports to include a number of other sources that presently include nations such as China, Germany, Ukraine and Belarus. Arguably more surprising is the presence of countries like Israel and the UAE in this list, which have supplied Ethiopia with a number of specialised weapon systems.
Israel has proved a popular source of armament for many African countries, supplying them with anything from small arms to drones and even naval vessels. Ethiopia first established military ties with Israel in the 1950s under Emperor Haile Sellassie I. Interestingly, Ethiopian military cooperation with Israel continued even under the communist-socialist state that existed in Ethiopia from 1974 to 1991. During this era, the government of Mengistu maintained close relationships to both Arab countries and Israel, although the latter in near secrecy so as to not upset its Arab allies.
Only in recent years the strong ties between Ethiopia and Israel also materialised in the delivery of military equipment ‘Made in Israel’. One of these is the Thunder infantry mobility vehicle (IMV), which so far has entered service with Ethiopia and Cameroon. In the case of the former, it was to assemble the vehicles in-country in an effort to build up the knowledge and capabilities of Ethiopia’s indigenous arms industry. Similar constructions have been put up with Ukraine and China, showing that such efforts are anything but a token effort to fortify Ethiopia’s prowess in this field.

Between 2011 and 2013, the Israeli Gaia Automotive company was awared a contract to deliver 80 Thunder IMVs to Ethiopia. [1] The first 5 vehicles were manufactured in Israel while the materiels for the building of 75 more vehicles, as well as all the required factory equipment, were shipped to Ethiopia. Gaia assembled another five Thunder IMVs in Ethiopia, after which the Ethiopians completed the remaining 70 vehicles on their own. The valuable experience gained by the Ethiopian side in projects like these is sure to help the country in future endeavours to construct armoured vehicles of its own.

The Thunder IMV is based on the chassis of a commercially available Ford pickup truck. The superstructure (i.e. driver’s cabin) is stripped off in its entirety, leaving only the chassis and the engine in place. Sections of the armoured body are then placed on the barren chassis and welded in place before additional equipment is fitted to the newly-fabricated vehicle. As a finishing touch, the original tires are then replaced by military-grade ones to enable the Thunder IMV to cross rough terrain.

The ENDF appears to be operating its Thunder IMVs in at least four different configurations, including one fitted with a dozer blade. Although this configuration appears of little use for conventional military operations, the dozer blade is well suited for clearing barricades put up by protestors during demonstrations. These have frequently occurred throughout Ethiopia’s modern existence, with the anti-government protests of 2014 to 2016 arguably being the most significant such events, leading to a change of government in 2018.

The military police also operates its own dedicated variant, which appears to be fitted with a small searchlight. In addition, the Ethiopian Army operates a dedicated ambulance variant and a version equipped with a 12.7mm DShK heavy machine gun (HMG). The latter version constitutes the only variant equipped with fixed armament. Each Thunder IMV also comes equipped with a total of seven firing ports (three on each side, one on the rear) from which the crew can fire their personal weapons to fend off enemy attacks.

The Thunder IMV is not the only type of Israeli equipment currently in service with the ENDF. In order to equip some of its elite (at least in name) Republican Guard units, Ethiopia acquired a small number of IWI Tavor TAR-21 assault rifles from Israel as well. Perhaps more significantly, the Ethiopian Air Force operates at least two types of Israeli unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). This includes the Aerostar UAV and the WanderB mini UAS, the latter having been purchased in 2011 to form Ethiopia’s first UAV regiment. [2]

Behind an arsenal of mostly Soviet, Russian and Chinese armament exotic equipment fills in the gaps. Whether it was sourced from Israel, North Korea or Germany, such equipment has typically flown under the radar, attracting little attention from analysts or the general public. With the sale of Moahjer-6s UCAVs by Iran, it appears the market for armament in this corner of Africa continues growing however, with the list of suppliers growing to meet its increased demand. With the conflict in its Tigray region continuing to rage, this exotic armament will surely be put to use here as well, if it hasn’t been already.

[1] The Establishment of an APC Production Line in Ethiopia
[3] The Israel Connection – Ethiopia’s Other UAVs


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