Study: The Right Unmanned Systems Could Help Defeat an Invasion of Taiwan

Taiwan Strait
The Taiwan Strait (NASA file image)

Published Jul 2, 2024 10:15 PM by The Maritime Executive


The Center for a New American Security (CNAS) has completed a comprehensive review of the role of unmanned systems in defending Taiwan, as envisioned by Indo-Pacific Command. The study's conclusions favor drone-based solutions to the problem of a Chinese cross-strait invasion, subject to the vast geographic distance between the U.S. mainland, allied basing locations in East Asia, and invasion fleet targets in the Strait. The decisive factors are all in the details - and China has a head start, both in numbers and in distance.

"The bottom line is, China is better positioned to take advantage of the drones that it already has in its existing inventories across the services to help it in an invasion [of Taiwan] than the United States is right now," said CNAS Senior Fellow and Director Dr. Stacie Pettyjohn at a panel last week. "You need large numbers. Mass doesn't solve everything . . . but you do need a large number of systems, because they're going to be lost."

Dr. Pettyjohn emphasized the need for more range to overcome the extreme distance to the battlespace. Aerial drones launched from Guam would have more than 1,700 miles to go to reach Taiwan, each way. Even bases in northern Luzon would still be 400 miles away from the action.

Given the difficulty of comms and targeting in a highly-contested environment, using these long-range aerial drones in an autonomous kamikaze role might be the most effective choice, she suggests.  

"The U.S. is focused on the need to sink the invasion fleet as one of the core tasks that it would have to undertake in this scenario," she said. "[Kamikaze drones] don't have to reach back to get targeting coordinates, they can identify the ship - because ships have fairly distinct signatures - and make the decision on their own to go in and hit it if they find an enemy vessel." 

Former Undersecretary of the Navy and Deputy Secretary of Defense Bob Work, a CNAS distinguished fellow, is also bullish on the prospects for maritime drones in a cross-strait contingency.  

"You could imagine uncrewed underwater vessels putting up a 'fence' that would warn you when the island landing campaign has kicked off," he said. "Then you can imagine uncrewed surface vessels acting as kamikaze drones, like the Ukrainians are using - all sorts of attacks going into all of the ports on the other side of the strait to attack Chinese merchant shipping and Chinese combatants while they're sitting in port."

He compared these unmanned munitions to "fast mines" or "slow torpedoes," which "all end with a big boom below the waterline." 

Work also envisions an active role for unmanned aerial drones to counter the cross-strait invasion force. In the event that the attack includes a helicopter assault force from the mainland, just 80 miles away across the strait, anti-air flying drones could be a cheaper "antiaircraft missile," as has been proven in Ukraine. (Drone-on-drone aerial combat is common over the battlefield in eastern Ukraine.)

Aerial drones could also target the invasion force at the point of embarkation for an amphibious assault. "At some point, the Chinese are going to get into amphibious assault craft and landing craft to get their people ashore, and those are going to be really, really vulnerable to top attacks from kamikaze drones," Work said. "So even if the Chinese were able to make it all the way across the strait, getting their people ashore is really going to be a problem for them."