Drones are expected to be the ‘main force on the battlefield’ if China tries to invade Taiwan, but some of the most useful drones are only made in China
Just two weeks ago, China unveiled an improved version of one of its most advanced unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). Janes Defense analysts concluded from a video which showed the new drone’s capabilities that its manufacturer, Sichuan Tengden Technology, had added more hardpoints to the drone’s long wings. They also concluded that the video showed the company had managed to successfully integrate a large number of air-launched weapons to work with its TW328-A drone, which is a three-engine version of the company’s TB-001 Scorpion that is being deployed by the PLA.
The PLA used a version of the TB-001 to fly around Taiwan earlier this year, marking the first time that Taiwan’s military acknowledged that a Chinese drone had managed to do so. The new version of the TW328-A variant has three propeller engines that Tengden claims to be upgrades of the original engines, and it can now carry and launch eight types of weapons, including precision-guided bombs, anti-tank missiles, the TL-2 air-to-ground missile and the TS20 stand-off weapon that functions like a separate UAV once it is launched.
A few days after China unveiled the improved TB-001, the Taiwan Association for Strategic Assessment (TASA) held a symposium of experts to discuss the growing threat posed by China’s military UAV development program. Taiwan’s CNA news outlet reports that one of the symposium panelists, former Taiwan army commander-in-chief general Hu Chen-pu (胡鎮埔) stated that the use of a large number of drones in the Russia-Ukraine conflict has changed the way countries use their troops. He added that China’s drones have developed rapidly in a short timeframe, and that China has a large number of trained drone personnel. Hu said that drones combine high combat efficiency with a high level of safety for their operators — at very low cost.
The symposium’s panelists agreed that, if the CCP invades Taiwan by force in the future, drones will be the main force on the battlefield. They also concluded that drones are becoming increasingly important because they can be used for reconnaissance, surveillance, deception, and air strikes. China is developing a large number of combat and surveillance drones that can cooperate to strike targets beyond the visual range. The analysts believe that this “integration of detection and strike” will be the main aim of global UAV development in the next few years.
The panelists concluded that China’s buildup of drones, and the effectiveness of drones in the Ukraine conflict show that Taiwan’s military should invest in more of its own drones, and in ways to defeat China’s drones. Taiwan’s Chien Hsiang (劍翔) kamikaze drone — or loitering munition — was named as a very effective weapon to defend Taiwan, and the panelists said they expect its production to peak at 150 units per year.
China has shown that, in addition to its large and long-range winged drones, it is also producing a large variety of helicopter-style drones and smaller quadcopters that can drop multiple grenades on troops in trenches and on ammunition stockpiles. China is also the home of the DJI company that produces a variety of relatively cheap but highly effective quadcopter drones like the Mavic 3. Foreign Policy reports that, despite laws against the export of Chinese drones to Russia and Ukraine, a large number of these low-cost eyes in the sky have made their way to the battlefields of Ukraine, where they are used to scout the fields, give target coordinates to artillery commanders, and even drop grenades on enemy soldiers via home-made carry and release mechanisms. In fact, DJI’s drones are so effective that Yuri Baluyevsky, the former chief of the general staff of Russia’s armed forces, called the Mavic 3 “a true symbol of modern warfare.”
One big problem for Taiwanese allies like the U.S. is that the Pentagon and Washington have slapped a ban on drones imported from China because U.S. officials believe such drones — including DJI’s quadcopter drones — can be used to send sensitive information back to China. Although this feared ability has not been confirmed in security tests, the U.S. federal government believes the risk is real and has banned Chinese drones from being used by its employees. This has led to the grounding of 1,800 drones worth millions of dollars in the U.S. — which in turn has led to complaints from U.S. government officials, who say their departments can’t afford Western-made drones as they are either much more expensive or extremely inferior in performance and reliability.
It seems therefore that Taiwan and the U.S. currently have a massive incentive to start developing their own low-cost quadcopters that have the same reliability and versatility as those made by DJI. Military versions of these quadcopters would ideally also come with grenade carrying and dropping capabilities, as well as precise aiming mechanisms and infrared cameras for finding and attacking targets at night.