Suicide Drones and US Munitions, Taiwan Gearing Up to Counter China's Military Power

Taiwan is developing suicide drones that can target China's air-defense system and naval ships in the East China Sea as the rift between Beijing and Taipei continues to grow

The rift between China and Taiwan has grown larger in the past few years. Taiwan, a self-governed nation has been claimed to be a Chinese territory and many countries including the United Nations have agreed.

But the status quo has been changing with Taiwan's President Tsai Ing Wen refusing to surrender the autonomous country's independence to Beijing. China's President Xi Jinping, on the other hand, has even hinted at using military might to extend authority. Hence, any power move from Beijing will be met with Taiwan's military.

But as Taiwan's military is considerably smaller than China's and potential support from the U.S. could drag other countries in, Taipei is mulling over its own move to keep China at bay, by deploying suicide drones. In a way, it will be similar to imperial Japan's Kamikaze pilots who were at suicide missions during World War II. But since the drones are unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), it will not involve the death of its pilots.

Such drones would be able to spy, attack and blow themselves up, potentially working as a small and inexpensive version of cruise missiles. It will come with some loitering capability while remote pilots can guide them towards the target.

Chien Hsiang drone
Taiwan is developing two suicide drones to counter Chinese threat Wikimedia Commons

Suicide Drones

The concept of suicide drones is not new. The U.S. military also uses such drones (Puma) that are hand-launched while Israel's Harpy anti-radar drones are also similar in concept. Suicide drones are packed with grenade-sized explosives.

In Taiwan, such a suicide drone was first spotted in 2017 at the Taipei trade show. At the 2019 Taipei Aerospace & Defense Technology Exhibition, Taiwan showed off another suicide drone named the Fire Cardinal, a smaller version that weighs up to 15 pounds or around seven kilograms.

The Fire Cardinal is a twin-propeller drone with a wingspan of six feet — similar to many commercial UAVs. But it comes with infrared and electro-optical sensors for an intelligent object-detection system. It has a range of 10 miles and can travel at a speed of around 50 miles an hour at an altitude of 500 feet like the Puma surveillance drones.

Alex Azar's visit to Taiwan
Tsai Ing Wen (R), Taiwan's President who is anti-Beijing has cozied up to the U.S. with Health Secretary Alex Azar (L) recently visiting the country Twitter/ Tsai Ing-wen

The other drone named Chien Hsiang is more capable. It has been developed to target the air-defense system. According to National Interest, Chien Hsiang has striking similarities with Harpy that can travel at 115 miles per hour and carry 70-pound warhead with a range of up to 300 miles. However, it will be enough to target China's radar stations on the southeastern coast as per Taiwanese media. The other advantage will be to target Chinese naval ships in the East China Sea.

Countering Chinese Threat

In many ways, Taiwan is depending on the U.S. to give it back to China. Under incumbent U.S. President Donald Trump, the U.S. has cozied up to Taiwan and has agreed to supply $2.3 billion worth of arms to the island nation. It will include an air-to-ground missile that can be equipped with F-16s which the U.S. has sold to Taiwan. Apart from that, the proposed arms deal includes a rocket artillery system, surveillance drones and Harpoon anti-ship missiles.

The arms package is aimed at deterring the Chinese threat. As Chinese naval vessels keep surrounding Taiwan, such munitions would be useful. "The items in this package will help increase Taiwan's ability to prevent a Chinese invasion — essentially to hold out longer," Bonnie S Glaser, a senior adviser for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told the New York Times. "The U.S. is increasingly concerned that deterrence is weakening as Chinese military capabilities grow."

Besides that, Taiwan has also signed a five-year agreement with the U.S. While it is not a bilateral trade agreement, it is an important step towards diplomatic relations between two countries. This way, the U.S. is all but formally acknowledging Taiwan's sovereignty which has been criticized by Beijing often. Officially, despite being self-governed, Taiwan is China's territory and if the island nation is to declare independence, Beijing is expected to invade the country.

While it remains to be seen if Washington maintains distance under the new U.S. President Joe Biden or continues the present government's tactics, Chinese military researchers see it as a provocation that might not go well for Taiwan as it simply cannot match China's military might.

The other short-range suicide drone is Fire Cardinal