For several years, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has instructed the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to use its range of advanced fighter jets to provocatively probe — and even cross — the Taiwan Strait median line. The PLA has also used aerial drones, which it classifies as “strategic weaponry,” to slip into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone (ADIZ), although on a less frequent basis.
In October last year, the PLA flew a drone into Taiwan’s southwesterly ADIZ for the first time. Taiwan’s military used radar and ground-to-air missiles to track the uncrewed aircraft.
In March, the PLA used a new type of aerial reconnaissance drone, the Guizhou Soar Dragon, which again flew into Taiwan’s southwesterly ADIZ and was given radio warnings to leave the vicinity.
During a meeting at the Legislative Yuan in April, the Coast Guard Administration publicly confirmed that Chinese drones have been regularly flying circuits around Taiwan’s Pratas Islands (Dongsha Islands, 東沙群島), and it did not rule out that the uncrewed vehicles were tasked with collecting military intelligence.
According to Taiwanese media reports, China’s domestic drone program might have achieved a fresh technological breakthrough in March. Xian-based drone manufacturer Zhongtian Feilong claims to have successfully completed a test flight of a new uncrewed aerial mother ship, dubbed an “airborne aircraft carrier” by its maker, which is purportedly capable of releasing nine smaller drones to carry out reconnaissance, swarm attacks and other tasks.
If the project is successful, the “airborne aircraft carrier” would assist the PLA in its endeavor to build an integrated reconnaissance and strike swarm-warfare capability. It would allow the PLA to fight within the complex battlespace of the future, using a mother ship as a platform from which to launch precision attacks while performing a multitude of other tasks including surveillance, early warning, interference, attack and evaluation.
Stealthy, agile and relatively cheap to produce, drones will play an important role in future battles. The latest intelligence shows that the PLA has moved away from a strategy of using drones in supporting roles, and is developing combat drones designed as primary attack vehicles during aerial combat.
The PLA’s new generation of Cloud Shadow high-altitude, long-endurance drones are designed to cruise at altitudes of 14,000m. Indeed, many medium and high-altitude drones already in use by militaries around the world have a flight endurance of about 24 hours. This capability indicates that future battles will endure over long distances and long periods of time.
In recent years, the PLA has made great strides in research and development of uncrewed aerial vehicles for military purposes. It is likely that the PLA’s inventory of drones would be fielded in a war with Taiwan. This would include its short, medium and long-range integrated surveillance and reconnaissance drones, including the CAAA Rainbow, the Chengdu Pterodactyl and the Guizhou Soar Dragon families of drones, and the Shenyang Sharp Sword low-observable drone, which is capable of undertaking precision strike missions.
The Chungshan Institute of Science and Technology must invest more resources into the research and development of military drones. Taiwan’s national security apparatus must also put their heads together to develop a range of defensive programs and systems that allow the nation to fend off this new security threat.
Yao Chung-yuan is an adjunct professor and former deputy director of the Ministry of National Defense’s strategic planning department.
Translated by Edward Jones
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