Taiwan is currently in the process of buying and building thousands of military drones in an attempt to deter a Chinese invasion of its territory. This process was started in the summer of 2022, just months after Russia invaded Ukraine. Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen had gathered her senior military advisers to understand how Ukraine was able to offset the material advantages of a much more powerful foe.
The answer given to Tsai was that Ukraine’s use of drones enabled it to create its own partial air supremacy, even though it lacked warplanes. However, Taiwan lagged dangerously behind its far more powerful rival, China, in arming itself with aerial drones — and it needed a crash program to close the gap.
Reuters reported on July 21 that Taiwan then had only four drone types at its disposal and a fleet size of just “hundreds,” while China’s military has an arsenal of more than 50 different drone types that is estimated to run into the tens of thousands. These drones range from jet-powered, long-range surveillance aircraft to small quadcopters deployed by ground troops.
President Tsai then launched a strategic plan to close the gap. Under the Drone National Team program, Taiwan is recruiting the island’s commercial drone makers and aviation and aerospace firms in a joint effort with the military to fast-track the building of a self-sufficient drone supply chain.
“We need to quickly catch up, with thousands of drones,” aerospace entrepreneur Max Lo (羅正方), the coordinator of the drone effort, told Reuters in an interview. “We are trying our best to develop drones with commercial specifications for military use. We hope to quickly build up our capacity based on our existing technology so that we can be like Ukraine.”
The aim, according to a government planning document reviewed by Reuters, is to build more than 3,200 military drones by mid-2024. These will include mini-drones that weigh less than two kilograms as well as larger surveillance craft with a range of 150 kilometers.
To accelerate production, the government is for the first time enlisting private companies in the research and development phase of a weapons program. At least nine private firms have joined the effort.
News also broke last week that Taiwan is currently in the process of purchasing 160 of Turkey’s JACKAL drones, which have been modified to fire Thales’s Lightweight Multirole Missiles (LMM). These drones can also be fitted to drop medium-sized bombs on enemy units and ammunition dumps.
Ukraine has shown that even the smallest first-person view (FPV) drone — quadcopter drones that are controlled by soldiers that use a video screen to see what the drone’s on-board camera can see — can be used with great effect to scout ahead of troops and to share the drone’s video feed with artillery commanders, who can use the video feeds to rain artillery shells with great precision at faraway targets.
Soldiers on both sides of the Ukraine conflict have also used these small drones to drop grenades on enemy troops, and both sides also use simple duct tape to attach the warheads of RPK anti-tank grenades onto these small drones, turning them into remote-controlled flying tank killers that can destroy expensive armored vehicles. One big problem with these small quadcopters is that they are almost exclusively built in China by Chinese corporations like JDI. This is one part of the production imbalance that Taiwan’s new drone program is certain to address, as Taiwan certainly has the industrial capacity to mass produce such small quadcopters.
One of the most impressive drones that Taiwan has already developed is the Chien Hsiang (劍翔, Rising Sword) kamikaze drone. Also called a “loitering munition,” this 1.2-meter-long drone is basically a flying smart bomb with radiation-detection systems, wings and a small propeller that cruises at 185 kilometers per hour on a pre-programmed flight pattern. Fitted with radar-homing technology, its role is to loiter over the warzone and look for targets. Once it senses radar energy coming from the right kind of target — like a Chinese warship, radar installation or Russian-made S-400 anti-aircraft battery — it locks on and drops down on to the target, detonating its sizable warhead on impact.
Taiwan has also ordered a few of the U.S.’s very expensive MQ-9 Reaper drones while it has also started producing a drone that looks similar to the MQ-9, called the Teng Yun (騰雲, Cloud Rider). Thus, Taiwan is planning to build up an arsenal of drones that would range from small quadcopters to large airplane-style UAVs that can carry sophisticated sensors and relatively large missiles.
The big question then becomes who will fly these thousands of drones? During a theoretical invasion Taiwan’s trained soldiers will be kept busy with tasks aimed at concealing, deploying and launching thousands of anti-air and anti-ship missiles, as well as hundreds of artillery pieces.
Max Lo, chairman of Jingwei Aerospace Technology, recently made a tantalizing statement as to where Taiwan’s government could perhaps find enough pilots to control Taiwan’s drones. Lo was speaking at a seminar when he pointed out that Taiwan has 20,000 people who have drone piloting licenses, saying “If they can be mobilized according to the civilian control system during wartime, they will become the most solid backing for the national army.”
Lo advocated for military-civilian cooperation and proposed the idea of a “UAV Volunteer Army.” “I hope to develop a volunteer drone army in Taiwan. The F-16V we bought is very expensive, and it is difficult to train pilots. It takes many years to become a pilot. These people must be protected and cannot be written off at the beginning, and the F-16V still needs more than 100 pilots. But if Taiwan is mobilized for war, there are 20,000 currently licensed drone pilots. If you give them drones that can fight, they can go to the front and hide in a safe place to fight.”
Lo might have a point there, and if Taiwan does form such a volunteer force, they might not even need to “go to the front” to control drones. It might be possible to create a system where such volunteers would be able to go to their office buildings, launch their drones from the roof and head to a seat at a desk in a basement, from where they would be able to use their desktop computers and monitors to control drones as they are launched from Taiwanese territory. So, instead of staying home and experiencing the horrors of PLA missile strikes from their apartments, these volunteers would be able to be productive and lethal from the relative safety of the basements of their office buildings.
Whereas the expensive MQ-9 Reaper drone requires an expensive control station to control its many subsystems, small quadcopters require little more than a tablet or smartphone screen as a control interface. It is therefore entirely possible that Taiwan could produce relatively complex drones that can be “viewed” via a basic desktop monitor and controlled via the desktop computer’s keyboard and mouse controls. The desktop computer would then simply connect to the pilot’s assigned drones via an encrypted portal accessed via the office’s normal internet connection.
Used in conjunction with some good cyber security, such a system would also make it possible for such volunteers to do their warfighting in complete secrecy, as there would be no way for an invading force to know if they went to work to do their jobs, or if they went to work to take part in an aerial war against the invaders. This would also remove the risk of an invasion force later rounding up volunteer pilots by neighborhood, and punishing their families and neighbors.
Image: Gerald Nino, CBP, U.S. Dept. of Homeland Security, Public Domain