Taiwan is racing to defend itself against the prospect of lethal autonomous Chinese drone swarms invading its airspace in a potential future conflict.
The military has begun to deploy new counter-drone technology on outlying Taiwanese islands within a few miles of China’s southeastern coast, which have been on the front lines of an uptick of commercial drone intrusions over the past year.
Concerns have been raised that US support for the Ukraine war is diverting weapons that could be used to defend Taiwan. The outbreak of war in Israel is likely to increase fears over a threatened Chinese invasion.
The archipelago was targeted by a surge of commercial drone incursions near sensitive military outposts following the visit of Nancy Pelosi, the former US House speaker, in August last year which infuriated Beijing.
Taiwan’s defence ministry vowed to install counter-drone systems after a public outcry when footage emerged of Taiwanese soldiers throwing stones at a Chinese drone that buzzed their guard post.
Under the Drone National Team programme, Taiwan is combining efforts of commercial drone makers, aviation and aerospace firms, and the military to build more than 3,200 military drones by mid-2024. These include mini-drones as well as larger surveillance craft with a range of 150km.
Yu-Jiu Wang, the CEO of Tron Future, the start-up that has pioneered the radar, jamming and interception system, told The Telegraph: “If you can imagine in a serious conflict like World War 3, then that could become terrifying – a swarm of drones carrying a few bullets in each of them and they can recognise people and shoot them down. That could happen. The technology already exists.”
He said his system was defensive in nature and would initially be used to protect key infrastructure, including power plants, telecommunications base stations, and dams.
But he said the company, based in Taiwan’s microchip hub, Hsinchu, was shifting its focus to prepare for a worst-case scenario of a fully autonomous drone swarm that could flood the skies and wreak havoc on the ground.
The threat of an autonomous drone war – although futuristic – was real and imminent given rapid technological advances around the world, he said.
Tron Future’s work is part of a national twin strategy to develop Taiwan’s military drones and counter-drone programme to close the capabilities gap with China, which claims the democratic island as its own territory and has threatened to invade if it does not accept Beijing’s rule.
The company has taken the lead in developing measures to counter unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) of less than one metre in size that are not detected by the national air defence system which focuses on more conventional and larger military “Reaper-style” drones.
Although small, UAS have destructive potential if carrying a small amount of munition and pose a significant surveillance threat.
“For remote islands it has been an imminent problem for the last two years,” said Mr Wang.
His company’s AESA (active electronically scanned array) radar, which has a drone detection range of up to 5km, is first being deployed to Kinmen, a group of Taiwan-controlled islets that sit opposite China’s Xiamen and Quanzhou cities.
Tron Future’s technology combines a lightweight, portable T.Radar Pro, with a drone-disabling jammer and a reusable interceptor that mainly deploys “soft-kill” measures, such as a net, to capture an enemy drone, but can also be adapted for “hard-kill” options using lethal force.
Its website specifies that it has a “radar and image seeker with choices of explosive or non-destructive warheads dealing with different situations”.
Mr Wang said the aim was to adapt the system to deal with swarms of more sophisticated autonomous drones that are able to operate independently without emitting radio or GPS signals to human controllers, and which are harder to detect.
The interceptor component, which currently only neutralises one enemy drone at a time, would need to be able to tackle a saturated attack of multiple autonomous drones flying in a squad, he said.
Taiwan stepped up its quest for military drone assets a few months after Russia began its war with Ukraine.
An internal Taiwanese assessment showed the nation was dangerously “outnumbered” by Chinese aerial drone capabilities, which experts believe would play a pivotal role in any future military conflict.
In July, analysts from the Taiwan Association for Strategic Assessment predicted China would mainly use drones if it attacked Taiwan due to their low cost, high efficiency and ability to minimise Chinese casualties.
Drones are already increasingly an integral part of Beijing’s grey-zone warfare against Taiwan to test and wear down its defences.
In late April, a Chinese combat drone known as the TB-001 Twin-Tailed Scorpion, completed the first known “encirclement” by a drone of Taiwan.
The island currently only has four drone types at its disposal and a fleet size of just “hundreds” to face the rising threat, official sources recently told Reuters.
Meanwhile, China’s military, the People’s Liberation Army, has an arsenal of more than 50 different drone types that is estimated to run into the tens of thousands. These drones range from jet-powered, long-range surveillance aircraft to small quadcopters deployed by ground troops.
The stark shortfall, and China’s increased use of drones in its surveillance and military intimidation tactics near Taiwan’s airspace, have spurred Taipei to accelerate its own drone strategy and boost its domestic supply chain.
Kitsch Liao, a defence expert at the Atlantic Council’s Global China Hub programme, said that while drones were definitely a useful capability, Taiwan faced logistical challenges to develop its programme at scale and should take a more tactical approach to building a capacity that would be self-sufficient and cost-effective.