A US think tank contends that drones will be critical to defending Taiwan in the event of a Chinese attack and makes several recommendations for developing this capability.

In a report entitled Swarms over the Strait, the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) outlines the important role drones have played in recent conflicts, including the war in Ukraine.

Altius-600 flying c Area-I

Source: Anduril

The US government recently cleared the sale of over 1,000 loitering munitions to Taiwan, including 291 Anduril Altius 600M-Vs (pictured) and 720 AeroVironment Switchblade 300s

The report warns that the USA faces a formidable foe in drone capabilities given China’s broad fielding of unmanned systems, as well as its massive commercial drone industry – which is unrivalled in both Taiwan and the USA.

“The United States is betting that it can out-innovate China and use drones to defeat a People’s Liberation Army invasion of Taiwan,” says the CNAS report.

“Here, the United States should view Ukraine as a cautionary tale. Ukraine consistently has pioneered new approaches to drone warfare, but Russia has rapidly adapted and scaled drone production in a way that Ukraine cannot match.”

The report observes that large, expensive unmanned air vehicles in the US inventory are unlikely to survive in contested airspace. Moreover, the USA operates relatively few high value assets such as the Northrop Grumman RQ-4 and General Atomics Aeronautical Systems MQ-9.

The sheer distance of the Taiwan Strait from US bases – and its proximity to Chinese bases – creates additional challenges.

The report recommends that the Pentagon acquire “good enough” long-range drones that have the range to operate in the Asia-Pacific region but are obtained in numbers sufficient to absorb attrition.

“In addition to acquiring ‘good enough’ long-range drones for target acquisition and strike, the United States should have a smaller number of stealthy drones that can conduct surveillance in highly contested airspace and provide targeting information for standoff missile strikes,” says the report.

“More sophisticated drones will also likely be needed as a part of the collaborative combat aircraft program.”

Among a long list of recommendations, CNAS suggests that the USA invest in autonomous drones designed specifically for attacking ships in an invasion fleet.

“Affordable kamikaze drones with relatively simple autonomy could overwhelm the Chinese navy’s air defences and damage or destroy the invasion fleet,” it says.

Ultimately, CNAS concludes that the mass production of an affordable range of drones is required in order to support what would likely be a protracted conflict.

“Today China is positioned to take advantage of its large fleet of drones, which could provide it with an edge in a war over Taiwan,” says CNAS.

“The United States and Taiwan need to rapidly close this gap and to develop a layered system of counter-drone defences or risk being on the losing side of a war.”

In recent remarks to the Washington Post, the commander of the US Indo-Pacific Command, Samuel Paparo, said that unmanned systems would play a key role in defeating any Chinese invasion attempt against Taiwan.

“I want to turn the Taiwan Strait into an unmanned hellscape using a number of classified capabilities,” said Paparo.

“I can make their lives utterly miserable for a month, which buys me time for the rest of everything.”