China’s Tengden TB-001 unmanned air vehicle (UAV) may have a role in guiding Chinese ballistic missiles to their targets, and for providing real-time battle damage assessment.
These potential combat roles for the TB-001 – a large twin-engined UAV known as the ‘twin-tailed scorpion’ — was outlined in a paper by Japan Air Self-Defense Force Lieutenant Colonel Aita Moriki. Derek Solen of the China Aerospace Studies Institute translated Moriki’s paper into English.
Moriki’s report observes that the TB-001 and other Chinese UAVs were active over the waters east of Taiwan on 4 August 2022, when the People’s Liberation Army conducted a major exercise involving aircraft, missiles, and ships.
Beijing’s exercises, which disrupted commercial air and sea traffic, were intended to vent Beijing’s displeasure following a visit to Taiwan by then US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
On 4 August, the TB-001 was present in international airspace over the Western Pacific that Beijing had restricted for a military exercise.
Moriki hypothesises that the TB-001, which is equipped with an electro-optical/infrared (EO/IR) sensor, may have conveyed real-time footage of Chinese ballistic missiles – probably the medium-range DF-15B – striking simulated targets.
Ballistic missiles are likely to form a key element of any Chinese effort to defeat Western forces – namely the US Navy – coming to Taiwan’s aid in a crisis. Beijing is known to have developed anti-ship ballistic missiles that can target high-value US ships, including aircraft carriers.
Moriki notes that Beijing never said that UAV footage showed the impacts east of Taiwan in real time. Still, during the same period Chinese defence officials reported UAV video footage of Chinese missiles landing in the Taiwan Strait, the body of water that separates the two countries.
In addition, the TB-001 transmitted real-time video footage in September 2022 following an earthquake in Sichuan Province. The type was also used to set up a communications network to support search and rescue efforts.
“Therefore, it can be thought that the TB-001 UAV circling off eastern Taiwan on August 4 was transmitting to headquarters real-time video of the impacts by missiles that the Rocket Force launched,” writes Moriki.
Moriki goes on to theorise that the TB-001 may also have provided terminal guidance to DF-15Bs as they entered the target area. Quoting Jane’s, he states the DF-15B and similar Chinese missiles must constantly receive updated targeting information from over-the-horizon radars, UAVs, submarines, and satellites. He also mentions PLA writings that highlight the importance of UAVs in attacking time sensitive targets.
The TB-001, also designated the TW328, has made several appearances during China’s regular intrusions into Taiwan’s Air Defense Zone. In addition to an EO/IR sensor, it is capable of carrying several missiles and other payloads.
A tri-engined version of the TB-001, the TB-001A, flew in the flying display at Airshow China in November 2022.