After China showed off a range of new scouting and attack aerial drones, Taiwan showed its own new aerial drones that are designed to inflict heavy damage on invading forces.
The 14th China International Aviation and Aerospace Exhibition — also known as Airshow China 2022 — ended last Sunday. It is by far the biggest Chinese air show of the year, and as such it did not disappoint. One of the biggest surprises of the show was the large number of sophisticated Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) that Chinese companies displayed to the public.
Among the hundreds of displays, visitors could see a number of large jet-powered and propeller-powered UAVs that closely resembled the most advanced American UAVs. Among these were three drones that closely resembles the U.S.’ MQ-9 Reaper UAV, a long-range drone that the U.S. had used for years to strike at enemies with ground-attack missiles. The Reaper was used mainly for “decapitation strikes” in war zones like Afghanistan and its design can clearly be seen in a range of new drones that China displayed at the show, together with mock-ups of air-to-air and air-to-ground missiles that they would supposedly carry and fire.
In addition to winged UAVs, Chinese companies also showed a number of surprisingly large helicopter UAVs that could be used for reconnaissance and targeting, or fitted with anti-air or ground-attack missiles. These include at least three large unmanned helicopters that are almost as tall as an adult.
As with most of the winged UAVs, it is difficult to know how close to complete these helicopter drones are, or whether they’re just mockups of the products that the Chinese companies hope to create in the near future.
Two days after the Chinese air show ended, Taiwan invited journalists to inspect its own indigenous crop of UAVs. Among these were the impressive Chien Hsiang (劍翔) loitering munition, or “kamikaze drone.” The Chien Hsiang 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 drone was displayed together with its 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 power the weapon at speeds of up to 185 kilometers per hour.
In a combat scenario, Taiwan could launch dozens of these from its frontline islands and from Taiwan itself. While the ones fired from Taiwan would look for warship targets over the Taiwan Strait, the ones fired from the frontline islands would be able to cover most of China’s southeastern coastline. These would search out and attack China’s radar units and missile batteries stationed on or near the Chinese coastline. In this way they would seek to punch holes in China’s air defense network, through which Taiwan’s attack jets and land-attack cruise missiles would be able to penetrate toward inland targets. The Chien Hsiang’s manufacturer claims it has a maximum flight time of five hours and can strike targets approximately 621 miles away (1,000 km).
Also at the UAV display on Tuesday was Taiwan’s own version of the MQ-9 Reaper, the Teng Yun reconnaissance drone, as well as a number of other Taiwanese UAV projects. One of the latest of these projects is an uncrewed reconnaissance helicopter that gave a flight demonstration at the event. The helicopter drone, which the South China Morning Post says has been tentatively named “Capricorn,” can reportedly plot its own flight route and land autonomously. Its manufacturer told Focus Taiwan that the drone has a maximum flight time of over an hour and a range of over 18 miles (30 km). The “Capricorn” can also transmit images in real time for precise scouting. The Taiwanese military has already received 14 of these drone helicopters, and it has ordered a total of 50 for use in coastal areas.
It is clear that China’s new UAVs show that China is on track to create a UAV force that is on par with the rest of its military, namely a force that is much larger than Taiwan’s corresponding force. On the other hand, Taiwan is showing that it is building up its UAV force to be on par with the rest of its military, namely a force that can severely damage China’s corresponding force. This fits in with Taiwan’s new military strategy: given the impossible task of matching China’s military strength, Taiwan only needs to build up an asymmetric-warfare force that is potent enough to cause severe damage and many casualties to an invading force.
The idea is not to necessarily defeat China’s fast-growing military, but to have the capability to severely damage an invading force. This capability would force China’s political leaders to avoid invading Taiwan, as the risks and costs involved would be too high. Taiwan’s growing ability to fight an asymmetric war also means that an attack on Taiwan would severely weaken China’s military while at the same time sparking a decisive war with the U.S. and its allies.
Image: Lu Hanxin