SADC DR Congo mission will come up against high-tech weaponry

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The Southern African Development Community (SADC) mission to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) will, reports have it, face an M23 rebel grouping with high-tech armament at its disposal.

M23 is an abbreviation of the March 23 Movement (Mouvement du 23 mars in French) also known as the Congolese Revolutionary Army and comprising mostly Tutsis. It is based in the eastern DRC and operates mainly in North Kivu province.

United Kingdom based defence and security information provider Jane’s earlier this month reported “sophisticated guided mortar rounds” were being used against government FARDC (Forces Armées de la République Démocratique du Congo) forces in North Kivu.

At the same time, Agence France-Presse (AFP) reports that the rebel group has “sophisticated weapons” including surface-to-air missiles (SAMs). One, suspected to be ex-Rwandan Defence Force (RDF), was fired at a UN (United Nations) “observation drone”, but did not hit it, the publication quotes a “confidential report” as stating. The unmanned aerial vehicle in question was a UN Falco EVO aircraft, which managed to capture footage of the missile launcher.

“External military intelligence from France supports assessment that the suspected WZ551 6×6 IFV mobile SAM system is Rwandan,” according to the report seen by AFP.

Two images attached to the report show a six-wheeled armoured vehicle with a roof-mounted radar and missile launcher system, indicating a Type 92 Yitian version of the WZ551 armoured personnel carrier.

The photos were taken by the targeted UAV about 70 km north of Goma, provincial capital of North Kivu in rebel-held Rutshuru territory.

The UN MONUSCO peacekeeping mission said in the document it had “no past reporting of known armed groups possessing the training, capital or resources to operate and maintain a mobile SAM system”. Use of the suspected WZ551 mobile SAM system, the report notes, “indicates an escalation of conventional force conflict in eastern DRC”.

M23 and “the Rwanda army”, according to the quoted document, have used “numerous weapons against aircraft and also have in their armoury anti-aircraft guns and MANPAD mobile air defence systems”.

Reporting on the “sophisticated guided mortar rounds,” Janes has it a DRC UN group of experts photographed “a previously undocumented 120 mm guide mortar round” found in Murambi last June.

“While the group of experts did not identify the mortar round, saying it was working to trace its origin, the report included a marketing image for the 120 mm Stylet round made by Israel’s Elbit Systems to illustrate what the munition would have looked like when undamaged.

“Elbit says the Stylet is a global positioning system (GPS) guided munition that can be launched from an unmodified mortar and hit targets with an accuracy of 10 circular error probable (CEP) out to a range of 9 km.

“The group of experts’ report included two other photographs showing the tail from a similar mortar round recovered after an attack on a FARDC camp in Kanyamahoro on 24 October 2023,” as per the Janes report.

The increasingly sophisticated array of weapons being used by rebel forces in the DRC pose a major threat to MONUSCO peacekeepers, who are to withdraw by year-end, and the new SADC Mission in the DRC (SAMIDRC), which will have about 5 000 troops from South Africa, Tanzania, and Malawi. South Africa has committed 2 900 troops to SAMIDRC, who will be deployed until 15 December 2024 at a cost of R2 billion. MONUSCO, by contrast, had some 15 000 troops at its disposal.

The report of the use of SAMs in the DRC comes weeks after a SAAF Oryx on a MONUSCO medical evacuation mission was hit 43 times by small arms fire, on 2 February, injuring the aircraft commander and a medic in the cabin.