Taiwan is struggling with how to fit drones into its overall military strategy, a strategic deficiency that could be decisive in any future armed conflict with China.
This week, Financial Times reported that Taiwan is attempting to build a military drone domestic supply chain within a year as part of Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen’s efforts to bolster the self-governing island’s defenses against an increasingly belligerent China.
However, a senior official in the Tsai administration mentioned that Taiwan’s military has so far failed to present a clear concept of how to use drones in warfare and to capitalize on the island’s private sector’s significant capabilities in drone technology.
The unnamed official also notes that the Ukraine war has underlined the importance of preparing for a potential conflict in the Taiwan Strait and that drones will play a crucial role in a war scenario.
The Financial Times report also notes that the Taiwanese military has barely tapped into the island’s private drone sector out of concerns that private firms may leak classified information to China and that the military has not presented any concrete concepts for wartime usage of drones.
Chen Po-hung, a policy analyst at the Taipei-based Institute for National Defense and Security Research (INDSR) think tank, notes that Taiwan’s military is still relatively backward in drone use, as the military has not clearly defined the missions for different drone types.
Chen notes that Taiwan’s drones are developed by the state-owned National Chung-Shan Institute of Science and Technology (NCSIST), with the Taiwanese military giving the state institution technical specifications. In contrast, Taiwan’s private drone manufacturers are being tapped for small manufacturing tasks and have no chance to make military-related proposals.
Taiwan’s drone program faces multiple long-term viability challenges. The Financial Times report cites an unnamed military official saying that if Taiwan’s military drone program is partly aimed at developing the island’s drone industry and creating jobs, its results may be suboptimal from a military perspective.
The source also mentions that Taiwan’s lack of access to global drone markets is not ideal for boosting domestic drone research and development.
Nevertheless, Taiwan has pushed through with the development of indigenous combat drones. This May, Asia Times reported that Taiwan had completed long-range flight tests of its next-generation Teng Yun 2 drone, with the test validating Taiwan’s developments in drone technology. The Teng Yun 2 resembles the US MQ-1 Predator and can deploy the same AGM-114 Hellfire missiles.
A Teng Yun combat drone on display. Photo: Handout
Apart from the Teng Yun 2, Taiwan has also developed the Albatross 2 and Cardinal 2 surveillance and reconnaissance drones as well as the Teng Yun and Chien Hsiang loitering munitions.
Taiwan’s drone program supports its asymmetric porcupine strategy, which entails deploying numerous small assets that are highly survivable and lethal, and can be deployed in sufficient numbers to survive China’s initial attacks while being ready for counterattacks.
However, Taiwan may be at odds with itself over how drones best fit its strategic needs, as it appears to be fluctuating between an asymmetric stance and an audacious symmetric plan to match China head-on.
Michael Hunzeker, in a November 2021 article for the Texas National Review, notes that Taiwan’s Ministry of Defense is planning to deter a Chinese invasion by retaliating with missile strikes against the mainland and pitting Taiwan’s military head-on against the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) – an approach that he characterizes as unrealistic and destabilizing. Furthermore, he notes that going head-on with China was more popular with active-duty Taiwanese generals and admirals than US officials and analysts.
Taiwan still invests in high-profile, high-cost and high-prestige assets that would hardly fit in an asymmetric warfare strategy. This month, South China Morning Post reported that Taiwan plans to build two 2,000-ton frigates in anti-air and anti-submarine versions instead of a 4,000-ton missile frigate. The source mentions that the planned frigates are intended to shadow PLA Navy (PLA-N) warships in waters close to Taiwan.
However, Taiwan using the frigates to shadow China’s warships is a hazardous proposition, as it would turn them into vulnerable targets and expose them to unnecessary danger.
In addition to costly frigates of questionable military value, Reuters reported this January that Taiwan had purchased 66 F-16C/D fighters from the US, with deliveries starting in 2023 and projected to be finished by 2026 in a sale worth US$8 billion.
However, even these jets may be of limited military value. “The purchase of costly, high-profile systems from the US undermines Taiwan’s defense as they add relatively little in terms of actual defense capabilities, but consume a large portion of the budget,” says Hung Jiu-min, a post-doctoral fellow at the Taipei-based Institute for National Defense and Security Research (INDSR) think tank.
Hunzeker ascribes this dissonance to bureaucratic inertia from a time when Taiwanese and US defense planners were confident that their combined forces could repel an invasion attempt by an inferior PLA. That thinking became outdated as China’s military modernization took off, he notes.
Apart from potentially misguided ambitions to match China head-on, the implementation of Taiwan’s porcupine strategy has been slow at best. In the Texas National Review, James Timbie and other writers note that lag factors include China’s massive military modernization and US delays in selling weapons to Taiwan.
In an August interview for NPR, China scholar Michael Beckley says that as Taiwan’s people get more determined to maintain their de facto independence and options for peaceful reunification evanesce, China is resorting to more military options.
Tourists look on as a Chinese military helicopter flies past Pingtan island, one of mainland China’s closest points to Taiwan, in Fujian province on August 4, ahead of massive military drills off Taiwan. Photo: Twitter / JIJI
Beckley points out that China has been building warships at a rate never seen in any country since World War II and that the US and Taiwan have been slow to respond by spreading out their forces or hardening them against attack.
In a February 2021 article for The Maritime Executive, Andrew Erickson noted that between 2015 and 2020 the PLA-N surpassed the US Navy in warship numbers. Erickson notes that at 360 hulls, it exceeds the US Navy by more than 60, with the gap still growing rapidly. He also notes that China’s shipbuilding industry – the largest in the world – is behind this massive naval buildup.
Echoing this view in a September article for National Defense Magazine, Retired General John Hyten says that the US is moving exceptionally slow due to bureaucratic risk aversion in implementing its national security strategy. Hyten notes that fast-moving competitors like China and Russia make it imperative for the US to accelerate what he sees as its current ponderous pace.
The US has also been slow in providing weapons to Taiwan, which may have serious implications for the latter’s defense. This August, Defense News reported that Taiwan faces a $14.7 billion arms order backlog from the US, with some unfulfilled orders going back to 2017.
In addition, the source notes that the unwieldy US Foreign Military Sales process and competing demands to supply Ukraine to keep it in the fight against Russia may have pushed Taiwan down the list of US priorities.
Ultimately, US weapons sales to Taiwan are meant to buy time for the latter to harden its defenses and build its domestic arms industry, including its military drone program. However, US bureaucracy, risk aversion and competing demands from the Ukraine war may present Taiwan with an ever-shrinking timeframe to guard against China’s rapid military modernization.