The war in Ukraine has shown that future conflicts will rely heavily on drone technology. Apart from large kamikaze drones, both sides of the Ukraine conflict are using small camera-equipped aerial drones to spy on and look for enemy units, and many of these same scouting drones are designed to drop down on troops and vehicles before detonating their lethal warheads.
Chinese officials have recently hinted that China’s large arsenal of drones would be used extensively in any theoretical invasion of Taiwan. While not much is known about the PLA’s underwater drones, China has shown off a number of boat drones and is currently testing and deploying a large variety of aerial drones. These aerial drones vary in size from large airplane-like drones with jet and propeller engines to small quadcopters that are very similar to civilian video drones that can be bought off the shelf.
Such small quadcopter drones are relatively cheap to produce and some of them are designed to drop multiple grenades on hunkering troops, thereby posing a significant threat to the lives and morale of troops on the ground. Luckily for Taiwan, these small drones can not fly very far, so the PLA would have to bring them over by ship before they would be able to launch them from Taiwan’s coastline. So, as with so many other aspects of a theoretical island invasion, a lot would depend on Taiwan’s ability to sink the PLA’s ships before they can deliver their cargoes of troops, drones and other weapons.
In order to sink Russian ships cheaply, Ukraine recently started producing small robot boats fitted with cameras and remote-control systems that allow them to be steered to find and attack enemy ships by ramming into them and detonating their large explosive warheads. These have been used with relative success against Russian warships in the Black Sea. The big drawback to such surface drones, however, is that they can be spotted and destroyed with relative ease by ship defenders and aircraft. This is why Ukraine recently unveiled an innovative “semi-submersible” drone that looks like a torpedo fitted with a tall mast, a large keel underneath and side stabilizers that house two electric-powered propellers.
This innovative craft, called the Toloka TLK-150, is built around a large warhead and is designed to cruise underwater, showing only the top of its mast, which contains the camera and comms pod, above the waterline. This means that the Toloka is much harder to spot by eye or radar, which makes it much more likely to survive until it finds a target. Of course, the fact that it depends on electrical motors and batteries means that it doesn’t have the range and speed of Ukraine’s surface drone boats, but in the Taiwan-invasion scenario their range and speed should be enough to reach and blow large holes in warships as they approach the island.
The TLK-150 is only 2.5 meters (8 feet) long, but Ukraine is already developing larger versions of up to 12 meters (40 feet) in length. If Taiwan could develop similar drones, they could be deployed in swarms or individually around Taiwan’s coastline, where they would be able to sneak up on enemy ships as they slow down and stop to start amphibious operations. Of course, Taiwan is also buying and building large numbers of anti-ship missiles to sink as many as possible enemy ships during a theoretical invasion, so such semi-submersible kamikaze drones would be used in conjunction with those expensive missiles.
The beauty of the Toloka concept is that it should be a lot cheaper to produce than anti-ship missiles, as it would require only basic mechanical parts paired with relatively inexpensive radio and camera systems. Another desirable feature of the concept is that these craft can be easily hidden and secretly deployed, making it easier for them to survive a massive guided-missile barrage. They can also be deployed just before a conflict starts, sneaking out of harbors or dropping off ships and moving to pre-programmed coordinates where they could wait in standby mode until they are activated by their operators. The video feeds from dozens or hundreds of such drones would give Taiwan’s military a clear view of what is happening in the “battlespace,” and their mast pods might even be fitted with targeting hardware that could help to guide Taiwan’s anti-ship missiles.
Much would however depend on the ability of engineers to pack enough battery life into the craft’s watertight fuselage, while also giving the craft enough speed to maneuver and find targets. If the craft can only attack slow-moving or stationary ships, they would only be effective against cargo ships during shore operations. But that means they would still have a devastating effect in any island-invasion scenario. Skilled operators of such drones would also be able to steer their almost-invisible craft into the path of oncoming warships, and then turn to hit such warships head on, thereby eliminating the need for speed.
The idea of a large, cheap, mobile, submerged warhead fitted with small cameras and remote steering capabilities is definitely worth investigating. Some of these could also be fitted with artificial-intelligence systems that would enable them to attack suitable targets on their own. Fitting some of these with guidance and targeting hardware to help Taiwan’s missiles find their targets might also be a game changer in a war where satellites can be blinded by lasers and aerial guidance drones might not survive for long.