Given China’s consistent insistence upon preparing for an amphibious assault on Taiwan with drills and combat preparation operations in waters nearby, and the Chinese government’s escalating language about possible forcible reunification with the island, it comes as no surprise that the United States is authorizing the sale of MQ-9 Reaper drones to the country.
Taiwan may be acquiring U.S.-built MQ-9 Reaper drones according to a U.S. State Department Congressional notification, a move which could massively improve Taiwan’s electronic eyes on vital areas of the Chinese coastline and waters between them and the mainland. The proposed sale is in part due to an interesting policy shift regarding the export of drones to foreign allies which increased the volume and ease with which the United States can offer unmanned systems to partners around the globe.
“Most partners who are seeking it, and two that you just mentioned, are looking at it from a maritime domain awareness, border integrity, border-protection capability. It's not a strategic tool, it's a tactical operational tool,” Clarke Cooper, Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs told reporters, according to a Pentagon transcript.
In July of 2020, the Trump administration updated the United States policy on the export of unmanned aerial systems, Cooper explained.
“This important change benefited one of America’s most innovative industries, and allowed the United States to export additional UAS to key partners who require intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance to address counterterrorism and border security capabilities,” he added.
New weapons and a mission-scope enhancement for the MQ-9 Reaper adds additional rationale for why U.S. allies such as Taiwan might be interested in acquiring the drone. In recent years the Air Force has been adding new weapons to the MQ-9 Reaper, in part by leveraging an emerging “universal weapons interface.” A universal weapons interface enables the MQ-9 Reaper to more quickly integrate new weapons technology as it emerges and efficiently swap or replace bombs on the drone without much difficulty.
The MQ-9 Reaper currently fires the AGM-114 Hellfire missile, a 500-pound laser-guided weapon called the GBU-12 Paveway II, and Joint Direct Attack Munitions or JDAMs which are free-fall bombs engineered with a GPS and Inertial Navigation Systems guidance kit. The service has also been working on developing the MQ-9 Reaper as a possible air-to-air fighter by arming it with the AIM-9X.
The Air Force currently operates more than 100 MQ-9 Reaper drones and has, in recent years, begun configuring the platform with additional fuel tanks to substantially build upon the current 4,000-pound fuel capacity of the drone with a range of 1,150 miles. The upgrades to MQ-9 Reaper are designed to add two 1,350-pound fuel tanks to increase the drone’s endurance from sixteen hours to more than twenty-two hours. Additional dwell time and mission scope for the MQ-9 Reaper could make a lot of sense regarding why Taiwan might have an interest, given the often discussed geographical expanse of the Pacific region, often referred to as the tyranny of distance.
Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.