The Ukraine conflict has seen a large variety of drones being used for many different purposes. Taiwan is getting ahead of the curve by building a fleet of 3,000 high-tech drones
Taiwan’s defense ministry announced last Friday that a Chinese TB-001 “Twin-tailed Scorpion” long-range combat drone had flown around the self-ruled island. It was the first time Taiwan acknowledged that a Chinese unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) had managed to fly such a long route, which measured around 1,400 kilometers. Another Chinese long-range UAV, a BZK-005 surveillance drone, flew the same route on the same day, but turned around just before it reached the halfway point.
Then, on Wednesday May 3, the ministry announced that a BZK-005 surveillance drone had also flown the full distance around Taiwan the day before — this time from north to south, or clockwise rather than the anti-clockwise route the TB-001 had taken the week before.
The TB-001 is a twin-engine propeller-driven low-speed, long-range combat drone that is similar in length and wingspan to the U.S.’s one-engine MQ-9 Reaper drone. The TB-001’s manufacturer claims that it can fly for 35 hours, compared to the Reaper’s maximum of 20 hours, but the Reaper’s top speed of 463 kilometers per hour is a lot faster than the TB-001’s 300 kilometers per hour. The Reaper is also a lot beefier, with a maximum takeoff weight of 4.76 tons compared to the TB-001’s 2.8 tons.
Like the Reaper, the TB-001 can be remotely controlled “over the horizon” by radio signals sent from the remote human pilot’s control unit to a satellite that bounces the signals back to the drone. The drone can also send back video feed and other surveillance data to its controllers. It can be used as a surveillance platform or loaded with a variety of guided missiles and guided bombs. China says these weapons can be guided by “a variety of methods,” which usually means the drone can use a laser “pointer” to guide the weapons to their targets — although these can also be guided by satellites or targeting drones or command-and-control planes flying at higher altitudes.
China is building up a large array of UAVs that could be used during a conflict over Taiwan to gather data, guide cruise missiles and anti-ship missiles and even carry and launch its own anti-air and anti-surface missiles. Taiwan is countering this threat by building a large arsenal of U.S. Reapers and Taiwan-made drones. In this series of articles, we will look at the history of drones and the types and capabilities of Taiwan and China’s growing arsenals of drones.
A brief history of flying combat drones
The first “unmanned aerial vehicle” to be used to attack an enemy flew in 1849. In August of that year, Austria used large balloons carrying explosives to drift over Venice and explode. The Austrian army was besieging Venice at the time, but its siege artillery could not get within range because the rebellious city was protected by effective defenses and its shallow lagoons.
This was long before the age of basic radio detonators and bomb-dropping mechanisms, so the balloons that did make it to Venice mostly exploded harmlessly in the air.
Surprisingly, Japan used similar “UAVs” to attack the U.S. mainland during World War II. The Japanese military released 9,000 bomb-carrying balloons that were designed to float across the Pacific and cause forest fires and panic in the western parts of the U.S. Each of these balloons carried a large anti-personnel bomb that weighed 15 kilograms, as well as two incendiary devices.
One American woman and five children became the only known victims of this slow-moving assault when they discovered one such balloon near Gearhart Mountain in Oregon in May 1945. The bomb detonated after they had gathered around it, killing all six. These six American women and children thus became the first recorded casualties of something that could be described as both a UAV and a UCAV (unmanned combat aerial vehicle).
In 1898, almost 50 years after Venice was attacked by Austrian combat balloons, Nikola Tesla astounded a crowd of New Yorkers by displaying a radio-controlled boat that responded to his remote control inputs and could even flash its lights. Some of the onlookers thought Tesla was a magician who had the power of telekinesis, allowing him to control objects with his mind. Others speculated that Tesla had trained a very small monkey to pilot the miniature craft.
Since then, “unmanned aerial vehicle” has become a technical term only used for aerial vehicles that could be controlled by Tesla’s magic, otherwise known as “remote control via radio signals.” These remotely controlled aerial vehicles started off as crude and marginally effective airplanes in the 1950s and 1960s, but have since evolved into lethal attack weapons, targeting platforms and spying eyes in the skies that are propelled by push propellers, vertical lift propellers or even jet engines. Increasingly, human remote pilots are also being replaced by on-board computers that use AI software to analyze their environment and steer themselves to target areas.
By the time of the Gulf War in 1991, the U.S. already had the RQ-2 Pioneer drone flying over Iraq and used its optical and radio sensors to get vital data about enemy units far behind the frontlines. In that same year, the U.S. also unveiled the RQ-7 Shadow drone, which looked almost identical to Turkey’s Bayraktar TB-2 drone that first flew in 2011 and would become famous for its role in the Ukraine war in 2021. All three of these drones feature a long and slender high-lift, low-speed wing, a truncated fuselage ending in a pusher propeller and two slender beams connecting the wing and the tail section.
The U.S.’s development of this propeller-driven design would eventually become the MQ-1 Predator, which would later be perfected in the MQ-9 Reaper drone. Both these designs extend the fuselage all the way to the tail section (negating the need for the Bayraktar TB-2’s twin slender tail booms) and place the pusher propeller right at the end of the vehicle. The Reaper became a feared tool in Afghanistan, where it would be used to fire small but deadly AGM-114 Hellfire ground-attack missiles at targets like moving cars and houses that were believed to contain high-ranking Taliban commanders. Russian pilots used their fighter jets to force down a Reaper drone on March 14 of this year.
Taiwan is currently in the process of buying a number of these very capable and relatively expensive Reaper drones, while it is also building its own version of the Reaper as well as helicopter drones and a variety of kamikaze drones designed to attack anything from ships to soldiers sleeping in foxholes at night. We’ll be looking at all these drones plus China’s drones in part two on Thursday.