If China ever invaded Taiwan, hundreds of Taiwanese aerial drones would spread out over the island nation. Some would take on Chinese drones in air-to-air combat, and others would dive down on warships to detonate their large warheads, while others would provide guidance for cruise missiles and invaluable data on the positions and comms of enemy warships and warplanes
On Wednesday we looked at the evolution of the unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), from crude Austrian combat balloons that were used to bomb Venice in 1849, to the U.S.’s MQ-9 Reaper drone that is at present the most sophisticated and expensive winged propeller-driven combat drone in the skies.
While the Reaper is currently the top propeller dog, it has to be noted that the U.S., China, Russia and a handful of other nations are also in the process of developing very impressive jet-powered UAVs. These under-development jet drones also include “AI wingman drones” that are designed to fly with manned jet fighters and perform combat and reconnaissance duties. It is theorized that one or more of these AI drones would soon be able to form up around a manned fighter in flight. The fighter’s pilot would then be able to tap on a control screen or use voice commands to send each wingman to do different tasks, which it would then conduct autonomously by using its on-board computer, sensors and AI software.
The U.S. has also tested a very impressive stealth jet drone that could take off and land on the bucking deck of a U.S. aircraft carrier — the X-47B. Unfortunately, this groundbreaking project was not developed into a mature aircraft and the test vehicles were mothballed. The Pentagon decided to rather go ahead with another carrier-based stealth drone called the MQ-25A. Whereas the X-47B was designed to be a stealth fighter, the MQ-25A is a stealth tanker that can take off and loiter in a specific airspace where it would then refuel manned or unmanned aircraft as they pass through on their way to combat zones.
Taiwan’s propeller drones
Taiwan has so far not indicated any plans to buy or develop jet-powered drones, but it has recently launched a program to design and build its own fleet of 3,000 propeller-driven drones. In addition to this program, it has also placed an order for four propeller-driven MQ-9B SkyGuardian drones, which are based on the MQ-9 Reaper drone. The SkyGuardian has a longer wingspan than the Reaper, and it can fly for over 40 hours, compared to the Reaper’s 20 hours, but the main difference between the two models is that the SkyGuardian can fly in civilian airspace, while the Reaper can not. That’s because the SkyGuardian has a first-of-its-kind Detect and Avoid System and Certifiable Ground Control Station, that allows it to seamlessly integrate with normal air traffic, just like other commercial aircraft. The drone’s manufacturer, General Atomics, says these new technologies give its operators a similar, if not better, air traffic picture than the cockpit of human-crewed aircraft.
Taiwan has agreed to buy the four SkyGuardians and two ground control stations and other support equipment for just over $217 million. For that price, Taiwan gets four drones that can fly for more than 40 hours in all types of weather, day or night, while using their Lynx multi-mode radar and electro-optical/infrared (EO/IR) sensors — together with a variety of optional sensor pods — to give Taiwan’s military a very clear view of what’s happening in its airspace. Considering the price, size and built-in sensor technology of the SkyGuardians, they would most likely form the top tier of Taiwan’s drone fleet.
The next-biggest drone in the fleet would be the Taiwan-made Teng Yun 2 drone, which looks almost identical to the Reaper and thus like a smaller version of the SkyGuardian. Like the Reaper, it can also carry and fire AGM-114 Hellfire missiles, which are designed to destroy ground targets like tanks as well as slow-moving aerial targets like helicopters and drones. This drone was scheduled to enter mass production this year, after it showed in May and June of 2022 that it is capable of long-range flight over the open ocean while maintaining guidance control. However, one of the prototypes was damaged when it spun out after mechanical issues forced it to abort a take-off run in February of this year. The incident pushed back the development of the Teng Yun 2 and might have contributed to the fact that Taiwan has now decided to buy the four MQ-9B SkyGuardians.
Coming in at about 60% the size of the Teng Yun 2 is the Albatross II winged one-propeller drone. With its “cut-in-half fuselage” and twin slender booms growing out of its long wing to support its H-shaped tail, this one looks a lot like the U.S. military’s RQ-2 Pioneer surveillance drone that became the first “celebrity drone” when it recorded video footage of Iraqi troops surrendering to it as it flew over them during the Gulf War in 1991. Like the Pioneer, the Albatross is purely a surveillance drone. It is made of composite materials and equipped with electro-optical/infrared light sensors that can record clear images during the day or night, and even in cloudy weather. The Albatross can fly far on autopilot or via remote control for 12 hours and has a guidance range of 150 kilometers. It is used for day and night reconnaissance, target acquisition and battlefield damage assessment.
Taiwan also has at least one model of small hand-launched winged propeller drone that is used for surveillance
The one that has been revealed to the public is the Cardinal mini-UAV, which can be disassembled and carried in a backpack by a soldier so that it can be used on the frontlines to give troops surveillance data in day or night conditions. The troops can use the Cardinal’s video feed to find enemy units and then radio their locations to artillery units for long-distance artillery strikes.
One helicopter drone that Taiwan has already developed is the Capricorn drone. It resembles a large remote-control helicopter with a fuselage that’s just over 1 meter long. It is fitted with surveillance sensors like day/night infrared optics and will mainly be used for reconnaissance in urban areas and along beaches. Its guidance system has a range of 30 kilometers, and it can fly for one hour at a time.
It is also possible that Taiwan would be looking at buying — or building its own versions — of commercial vertical-lift rotor drones (quadcopters) like the ones that have 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 in Ukraine 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.
Most of these quadcopters are made in China, and Taiwan has stated that it wants to exclude Chinese products and parts from its drone-building program. So, if Taiwan does decide to acquire a large number of these simple but effective drones, it is likely that it would launch a project to have such drones and their parts manufactured in Taiwan or in an allied country.
Big and small kamikaze drones
Taiwan is developing a number of loitering munitions that are dubbed “kamikaze drones” because they loiter over an area before selecting a target and diving down to smash into it. The most mature of these loitering munitions is the Chien Hsiang, which 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.
The Chien Hsiang also has a launch vehicle — a medium-sized truck that holds 12 drones in 12 ready-to-fire launchers. Videos of the drones in action show them using small, short-burn rocket engines to shoot out of their launchers and gain altitude. Once the drone reaches the correct speed and altitude, the rocket stops firing and a small propeller at the rear of the drone unfolds and starts to propel the weapon at speeds of up to 185 kilometers per hour.
Last but not least is a mini kamikaze drone that comes in a tube that a soldier can carry under one arm. Taiwan indicated it is on the verge of mass-producing such a drone, which is very similar to the U.S.-made Switchblade 300 loitering munition. The new drone is lightweight and fits in a backpack. Like the Switchblade, it comes in a tube that doubles as a launch pod. The device is pushed out of the pod and into the air with a pre-loaded spring, small explosive charge, or air pressure. Once in the air, its wings and propeller unfold and it starts to fly like an airplane drone.
The Japan Times reports that, according to the manufacturer, the drone is fitted with electro-optical imaging and infrared sensors for guidance and targeting. It can carry a high-explosive warhead over a range of 10 kilometers and stay airborne for more than 15 minutes. It is designed to attack soft targets like personnel and unarmored vehicles.
That’s pretty much all the UAVs and drones that Taiwan is presently using and developing. We’ll take a last look at drones next week when we give you a quick overview of China’s many real and imaginary propeller and jet drones.