DRC: Sophisticated Arms and Aerial Capabilities Raise Concerns

The 120 mm guided mortar round that was recovered in North Kivu province in the DRC in June 2023. (United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo via the United Nations Group of Experts on the Democratic Republic of Congo)

On February 14, 2024, a tragic incident occurred in Mubambiro, Masisi territory, North Kivu province, Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), where a mortar shell struck a base, resulting in the deaths of Captain Simon Mkhulu Bobe and Corporal Irven Thabang Semono of the South African army. These soldiers were part of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) Military Force in eastern DRC (SAMIDRC). Their bodies were repatriated on February 21, 2024, to Waterkloof Air Base, amidst a highly emotional atmosphere.

The introduction of increasingly sophisticated weapons and the deployment of aerial means by the March 23 Movement (M23) and the Rwanda Defence Forces (RDF) in the DRC territory have ignited concerns both within the country and at the United Nations. The South African army, while not directly accusing the neighboring Rwanda or the M23 group, has initiated an investigation into the attack. The Congolese government, however, is unequivocal in attributing the assault to the Rwandan military.

Rwanda’s opposition to the SADC force’s presence in Eastern DRC was openly declared two days prior to the South African soldiers’ deaths, highlighting tensions over the support of the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO) to the Southern African Force.

The Congolese military’s accusations against Rwanda stem from the advanced weaponry in possession of both the M23 and the RDF. These operational zones are notable for their high-tech military arsenal, differing significantly from other fronts. The M23’s arsenal includes assault rifles, heavy and light machine guns, various rocket launchers, rockets, grenade launchers, recoilless rifles, mortar shells, night vision equipment, and more. Recent additions to this arsenal have been observed, including 40 mm anti-personnel grenades produced in 2021 and sophisticated assault rifles never before seen in the DRC, such as the Israeli Galil and the Russian AK-103.

Notably, the use of 120mm guided mortars, capable of precision targeting, has been documented. These mortars, distinguishable by their laser measuring elements and high lethality, were first reported on Congolese territory in a joint M23-RDF camp in Mushaki on March 3, 2023. According to United Nations experts, this weaponry, including the guided mortar rounds, has never been part of the Congolese armed forces’ (FARDC) arsenal.

The report from the United Nations Group of Experts on the DRC, released on January 3, included a photograph of a 120 mm guided mortar round found in Murambi in June 2023, believed to be manufactured by Israel’s Elbit Systems. This round, designed for precision strikes, underscores the sophisticated military capabilities introduced into the conflict.

Additionally, the deployment of anti-aircraft systems has escalated tensions. On January 24, 2023, a Congolese Sukhoi-25 was targeted by anti-aircraft fire from Rwandan territory. In response to the DRC’s deployment of Chinese CH-4 attack drones in operational zones, Rwanda announced on February 18, 2024, the deployment of comprehensive air defense measures.

International concern was voiced at a United Nations Security Council meeting on February 20, with representatives from France and the United States emphasizing the importance of respecting the DRC’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. They criticized the deployment of anti-aircraft systems and called for Rwanda to cease its support of M23 and withdraw its forces and missile systems from Congolese territory.

The involvement of more sophisticated military resources in a region with a complex presence of various armies, including those of the DRC, Rwanda, Burundi, MONUSCO, and SADC, raises major concerns and fears of a further escalation in the conflict.