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  • Writer's pictureIan Murphy

Taiwan’s Drone Defense: From Dependence to Dominance

Modern warfare is changing. As seen with the use of drones and drone-dropped munitions in the conflicts in Ukraine and Gaza, asymmetric warfare using small systems is becoming more prevalent. Warfare is changing from larger forces to smaller, asymmetric systems for a number of reasons. Advances in technology have made it possible to develop smaller, more sophisticated weapons systems that are just as lethal as larger systems. For example, drone-dropped munitions can be programmed to deliver precise strikes on targets from miles away. The cost of smaller weapons is more affordable than larger systems, which offers flexibility in where and when these systems can be deployed. Smaller weapons systems also give smaller militaries and non-state actors an asymmetric advantage over larger militaries. These systems are not exclusive to big military powers and present new challenges for all governments and their militaries. Militaries have to adapt to the new realities of war. Taiwan will need to stay ahead of this trend by developing new doctrines and tactics to counter the threats posed by smaller weapons systems while developing its own domestic drone industry to maintain deterrence against a Chinese invasion. 

Taiwan’s Over-reliance on Foreign Military Sales

While I was an MBA student at National Taiwan Normal University’s Global Business and Strategy program, there was a common theme that affected the business strategies of Taiwanese companies – Taiwan has a small domestic market. The size of Taiwan’s market leads the island to be highly globalized, meaning that it relies on foreign countries for components and that many domestic industries can not rely on the domestic market alone. Although MBA coursework typically focuses on the consumer market, the same lessons can be applied to defense manufacturing. Taiwanese companies have a difficult time justifying the startup costs of defense manufacturing because of low demand or low order sizes from the Taiwanese government. This has led Taiwan to rely on weapons sales from the United States to supply its military.

This model has worked for decades but will become unsustainable as China continues to modernize its military, both outproducing and outspending Taiwan’s defense industry. Weapons procurement is also both a bureaucratic and political affair, leading to years-long delivery times. While Taiwan relies on the United States for weapons, the United States has several export markets and it is argued that Washington can shift priorities based on global conflicts like the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the Israel-Hamas conflict, leading to further delivery delays to Taiwan. 

The conventional wisdom of supplying Taiwan with high-tech weaponry is also coming into question. The cost of weapons sales from the United States is prohibitively expensive and has led to public protest in both the United States and Taiwan. The conflicts in Ukraine and Gaza have also proven that the use of drone intelligence gathering, and drone-dropped munitions can overwhelm modern air-defense systems, hit naval targets, and halt ground forces. Rather than keeping pace with China through technology transfer and arms sales, Taiwan should instead double down on its domestic drone manufacturing program. 

The Rise of Indigenous Drone Programs

Before the Ukraine conflict, drone programs were associated with the United States Air Force Reaper drones that was used for reconnaissance and strike missions in the Middle East. These programs were large and complex, making the development of drone technology prohibitively expensive for even most governments. 

As electronics, batteries, and sensor technology became smaller, cheaper, and lighter, we saw the shift away from large drones that carry heavy payloads over long distances to smaller, near-consumer grade drones fitted with small munitions. The accessibility of this technology means that groups using drones are able to obtain them inexpensively, modify the drone’s systems by 3D printing components, and use them to attack high-value targets. Although these small drones have a shorter range, their low cost means that they can be used for one-way missions. Combatants in conflicts are using modifying commercial drones to improve their reliability, increase range and accuracy, or carry grenades.

Iran, which is under heavy international sanctions, has also been using drones and drone manufacturing in its military aggression and diplomacy in notable ways. Iran and its proxies have used drones to attack targets in Iraq, Syria, and Saudi Arabia, allowing Iran to project power beyond its borders. In addition to contributing to regional conflict, Iran has also exported drones to Russia for use in the Ukraine war. This has served Iranian diplomatic interests by strengthening ties with Russia and gaining leverage in international negotiations such as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, also known as the Iran Nuclear Deal. Iran’s drone program has been used to carry out attacks on civilian and military targets, bombing critical infrastructure, and for surveillance.  

Taiwan’s Domestic Drone Production 

Taiwan is already on the path to becoming a domestic drone producer, but there are several key areas that are holding it back from becoming an influential drone power. Currently, Taiwan is estimated to be 70% self-sufficient in drone production, with Taiwan able to produce most of the components needed to build drones domestically. Taiwan has a strong domestic supply chain for airframes, motors, and batteries, but it still relies on imported infrared sensors, payloads, and communications systems. Politically, drone-production is in a good place. Future presidential administrations are positioned to use Taiwan’s Overall Defense Concept to boost civilian and military drone production, with very little change needed to kick these programs into high gear. 

Taiwan also has a highly educated population and recently increased mandatory military conscription from 4 months to one year, giving the population more time to learn new systems and tactics. The island’s most recent manufacturing and training success is the kestrel rocket. The Kestrel rocket launcher is a shoulder-launched anti-tank weapon that was developed by the National Chung-Shan Institute of Science and Technology. It is domestically produced and is designed to be a low-cost, light-weight system to be used by infantry and special forces. It is a single-shot, disposable weapon system made from fiber-reinforced plastic, and uses a mounted night vision scope. The launcher itself only weighs 5 kilograms and has a range of 400 meters. This system is a posterchild for Taiwan’s move towards low-cost, light-weight asymmetric warfare systems that can be used against conventional forces.  

Next Steps for Taiwan’s Domestic Drone Manufacturing Industry

Although the elements for a strong domestic drone manufacturing industry are there, Taiwan has a long way to go to become self-sufficient in drone production. Taiwan's path to self-sufficiency in drone production is hindered by several factors, including the need for imported components, expertise gaps in software development, and high startup costs. To address these challenges, the government should increase investment in research and development, provide financial assistance to domestic drone companies, and establish training programs both as part of military service and for civilian application. Additionally, the government should collaborate with domestic companies to develop key technologies and expand the domestic market for drones. Encouraging international cooperation will further aid Taiwanese companies in gaining access to new markets and technologies. By implementing these measures, Taiwan can effectively overcome these challenges and meet its defense goals with a domestic drone industry. 

This article was previously published on The News Lens on November 09, 2023.


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