From expensive long-range drones to small and cheap quadcopters that drop grenades on troops in trenches, the Ukraine conflict has shown how Taiwan can use drones with maximum effect
The war in Ukraine has shown how important aerial and naval drones have become in the modern battlefield. Where naval drones have been used sparingly by Ukraine to attack Russian ships at night, air drones have been used on a large scale and in tandem with other weapons.
The Ukraine conflict has given military analysts a lot of data on how effective even the cheapest aerial drones can be when used by lightly trained reserve forces against large invading armies.
Drones used by Ukraine’s defenders range from large airplane-like devices with long wings and pusher propellers, to small quadcopters with four or more small rotors that provide vertical lift.
The largest aerial drone used regularly by the defenders is the Turkish-made Bayraktar TB2. It is not as large as similar airplane-like drones used by the U.S. — like the U.S. military’s MQ-9 Reaper that was forced down by Russian fighter jets recently — but at a price of around $5 million, it is a lot less complex to manufacture and a lot cheaper than the $60 million that the average Reaper costs.
Airplane-like drones such as the Bayraktar TB2 are more efficient and can fly farther than vertical-lift rotor drones. They can carry large payloads and bigger radios, cameras and other sensors over large distances. One problem with such airplane-like designs is that they can’t hover above targets to perfectly aim any dropped ordnance. Therefore these types of drones need to be fitted with sophisticated targeting systems that employ sensors that measure the drone’s exact altitude, speed and direction while calculating the exact moment to release a bomb.
Another way for these airplane-like drones to attack targets effectively is to employ guided bombs with moving fins that steer the bomb as it falls toward the target’s identified GPS location, or a laser dot aimed by the drone that illuminates the target. However, apart from costing a lot of money, such bombs are usually too heavy to be carried by most drones. Another expensive weapon that can be used on drones like the BT2 is the guided missiles used by the U.S. on Reaper-type drones to attack militants in low-tech warzones like Afghanistan.
Ukraine also uses a much smaller airplane-like drone that has a slender body and wings that span only 1.5 meters. This very basic drone is steered via a standard radio controller and follows pre-set GPS routes when out of range. Unlike most other drones, it does not require a large and strong radio to receive control inputs and to send visual information. Its only payload is a small camera that fits inside its fuselage. When this small and inexpensive drone returns home, its operators can just remove its camera’s memory card and download the reconnaissance photos it took when passing over pre-programmed GPS locations. These photos can be downloaded onto a laptop in the field and then sent via a SpaceX Starlink satellite-internet transceiver to commanders in the rear.
This unsophisticated airplane drone actually has a few advantages that the larger Bayraktar TB2 does not have. Firstly, its small size and slender shape makes it harder to detect by enemy lookouts and air-defense radars, and because it uses a very simple navigation system to find its way, its controls can’t easily be jammed or hacked by enemy devices. Such jamming devices can shut down certain types of drones or force them to land behind enemy lines.
Military and commercial vertical-lift rotor drones have also been used extensively against Russian forces in Ukraine. These drones can be very small and hard to detect. They usually feature at least one camera that sends visuals back to a monitor on the operator’s handheld control panel. The visual feeds from these “TV drones” can also be shared by other monitors located at artillery or intelligence units in the rear.
Such helicopter-like drones have been used extensively to show artillery units exactly where enemy units are located. The commanders of these units can then use cannon artillery or HIMARS guided rockets to attack such faraway enemy units with great accuracy.
Helicopter-like and airplane-like drones can be fitted with normal cameras or more sophisticated sensors, like infrared cameras that can spot the heat signatures of troops and vehicles in the darkest of nights.
Ukraine’s success in using a large variety of drones means it would make sense for Taiwan to copy the most successful of these drones and tactics. Taiwan’s military could, for instance, acquire large numbers of relatively cheap commercial quadcopter drones and upgrade them with additional cameras. These could then be sent out to sneak into enemy territory, where they can act as invaluable eyes in the sky to show faraway commanders exactly where to aim Taiwan’s long-range artillery and HIMARS rockets.
These small TV drones can also be upgraded with remote-controlled clamping systems that can hold grenades and mortars, and drop such munitions when the operator taps a button on the control unit. Like in Ukraine, soldiers can use such adapted drones to hunt for enemy troops in faraway trenches and then drop deadly munitions on them. Such attacks are usually a complete surprise to the targeted enemies and have a big psychological effect on all enemy forces.
Taiwan’s military could greatly enhance the lethality of its troops by mass-producing similar small quadcopter drones that could be specifically designed to find enemies in the dark and drop munitions with great accuracy. It might also be worthwhile to design tailormade munitions that would explode in the air above the target, thereby spreading deadly shrapnel over a wider area.
Ukraine has used such drones to drop munitions on the roofs of armored vehicles. In some cases the operators were even able to drop the munitions into open hatches on such vehicles, thereby killing the vehicle operators and igniting the munitions inside the vehicles. This illustrates that specialized military attack quadcopters could benefit from having very accurate aiming systems built into them.
Specialized and makeshift kamikaze drones have also been used by both sides in the Ukraine conflict. We’ll discuss these in a later article. Suffice to say that Taiwan has already built large numbers of its own sophisticated kamikaze drones. The disadvantage of these drones is that they are relatively expensive and can not be used more than once.
China is also a large manufacturer of all types of drones, so it makes sense that Taiwan is currently developing radars and weapons that can sense the smallest of drones and either attack them with kinetic weapons or jamming devices, or hack their control signals and steal them. For these reasons it would also make sense for Taiwan to develop drones that cannot easily be detected, sensed, hacked or jammed.
Taiwan did order a few U.S.-built Reaper drones that are scheduled for delivery in 2025. Taiwan is also developing a similar drone, the Teng Yun 2. These are excellent platforms with sophisticated and powerful sensors, and they can be fitted with precision-strike missiles that can destroy targets as big and hard as tanks. Their drawback is that they are expensive and can not survive for long against sophisticated enemies with advanced air-defense radars and weapons.
In addition to its more sophisticated drones, it would be very handy if Taiwan could build a large stockpile of relatively cheap attack quadcopters that can terrorize the enemy by hunting troops in the dark and delivering custom-made munitions with high precision. Armed with such devices, Taiwanese soldiers could — while being unproductive in waiting for the enemy to reach them — be productive in waiting by flying their drones out and engaging the enemy while they sleep in their trenches.
Also, if I was a soldier in a modern warzone, I’d be hoping my government could develop lightweight top covers made of kevlar or materials that can deflect grenade explosions. In a warzone filled with grenade-dropping drones, such shielding structures would be very useful to reduce casualties. Military leaders could also look at simpler covers that are designed to fit over narrow trenches and simply deflect falling grenades to the side, thereby causing the grenades to explode harmlessly outside the trench. Such structures would work well against grenades with delayed fuses, but would need to be fortified to defend against impact-detonated munitions.