Drones Could Help Turn Taiwan Into a 'Porcupine'

Drones Could Help Turn Taiwan Into a 'Porcupine'

With tensions rising in the Taiwan Strait, attention has been focused on Taiwan’s efforts to bolster its self-defense, particularly by forging drone partnerships with allies.

 

In light of the increasing military threat from China, Taiwan has taken proactive measures to accelerate the development and production of military drones and countermeasures. This effort involves the expansion of national defense programs, the establishment of a state-run drone research and development center in Chiayi County, and the collaboration between Taiwanese drone manufacturers and compatible allies. In September, Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-wen pledged to “maximize production capacity” in order to meet growing defense needs and “enhance Taiwan’s drone research and development capabilities.”

The second-generation Albatross drone, Loitering Munition unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), portable Cardinal III UAV, and Type 2 aerial weapon are some of the combat and surveillance drones that Taiwan has produced. But China has more than fifty different types of drones, leaving Taiwan dangerously behind. Hence, defending Taiwan from a Chinese invasion would require the use of foreign drone technology, notably from the United States. However, it would be onerous for Washington to rapidly deploy drone assets and services to the democratically self-governed island because of its distant position. For this reason, Taiwan needs support from partners that can provide state-of-the-art technology and years of expertise in drone research and manufacturing.

 

Collaboration with foreign firms in drone development is at the center of Taiwan’s goal to strengthen ties with defense sector partners. The country has worked closely with European countries, including France, the Czech Republic, Lithuania, and Poland, to develop and produce drones. However, the United States and Israel have emerged as Taiwan’s leading and promising drone partners.

In April, Thunder Tiger Corporation, a Taiwanese UAV manufacturer, and IMSAR LLC, an American radar system developer, entered into a memorandum of understanding (MOU) to collaborate on drone development. In May, the U.S. Defense Department granted General Atomics a deal worth $217.6 million to deliver four MQ-9B systems to Taiwan by 2025. The MQ-9 Reaper, manufactured by the U.S. tech company General Atomics, has been the predominant unmanned aerial vehicle used by the U.S. Air Force for over a decade.

In early May, a delegation of twenty-five U.S. defense contractors arrived in Taiwan to attend the Taiwan-U.S. Defense Business Forum. It held talks with local businesses and government officials on further security cooperation. One topic of discussion was the potential for a joint manufacture of drones and ammunition. Additionally, the two parties have begun working together to enhance Taiwan’s defense capabilities by providing cutting-edge technology and encouraging collaboration with local enterprises to boost the development of drones.

GEOSAT Aerospace and Technology Inc., which has an office in Chiayi County’s Asia UAV AI Innovation Application R&D Center, also engaged in fruitful discussions with U.S. defense contractors on drone development and cooperation. Since GEOSAT is responsible for the assembly of NCSIST Albatross, which the Taiwanese Army has operated since 2012, Chairman Luo Zhengfang underlined that the company would like to work with Washington in joint development or even establish the production line of drones in Taiwan. GEOSAT also planned to team up with European manufacturing firms to replicate Chinese-made drones with comparable products made in Taiwan or its European partners.

Israel has moved closer to becoming Taiwan’s promising drone partner. According to Jacob Nagel, senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington, DC, “Israeli ties with China runs counter to the Jewish state’s interests,” making Israel a prospective drone partner for Taiwan, alongside the United States. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), based in Tehran, is one of the most formidable terrorist organizations in the Middle East, and Beijing’s decision to pump money into it has strained ties between Israel and China. Chen Guanru, Chairman of Thunder Tiger Corporation, visited the Israeli defense technology firm NextVision in May 2023. He then announced that his firm would work with the Taiwan External Trade Development Council to introduce UAV technology from Israel.

There are three other areas in which Taiwan and Israel could foster collaboration. Agriculture serves as a prime example. Taiwan faces several issues, including a lack of arable land and demographic shifts caused by aging and urbanization, leading to a shortage of agricultural workers. Taiwan’s efforts to develop “smart agriculture” to tackle these challenges could benefit from Israeli agricultural technology and digital innovation. Israel, known for being a technology trailblazer with over 500 agri-tech companies, effectively utilizes drones, artificial intelligence, and big data to cultivate for the future.

Taiwan and Israel should also strengthen military and defense ties. Israel is the largest armed drone operator and a key developer of loitering weapons in the Middle East. The Jewish state’s pioneering role in armed drones has gained popularity because its armed drones use gravity bombs that generate no noise or smoke as they fall, making them difficult for foes to anticipate or dodge. Taiwan and Israel should be wary of the geopolitical volatility in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East because of the potential fallout from the regions’ instability in their security environment. Since the two democracies face similar threats from unfriendly forces, their defense collaboration should be a top priority.

Medical collaboration with Israel would be beneficial for Taiwan. Israel has made strides in advancing drone technology for use in urban environments, such as the delivery of commodities and emergency aid and the distribution of medical supplies to underserved areas. Since medical drones are the fastest and most efficient way to treat patients in both emergency and non-emergency scenarios, Taiwan should strengthen cooperation with Israel to make greater use of this reliable and less expensive technology.

Taiwan should also consider forming closer partnerships with other powers with notable drone manufacturers and service providers, such as the United States, Turkey, France, and Japan, to advance technical research capabilities. Due to their advanced technologies and extensive practical experience gained during the Ukraine war, Turkey and France are ideal partners for Taiwan to further collaborate in military drone technology. In September, companies from Taiwan and Japan collaborated on an anti-drone defensive system using passive detection and AI-based technologies. The system helps ward off Chinese drone strikes on Taiwan’s strategic targets. This operational leverage may pave the way for Taiwan to collaborate with like-minded partners on a multilateral basis.

The expertise and experience of these advocates are practical for Taiwanese manufacturers as they have sought to boost their drone R&D capabilities. These tech allies might engage in fruitful dialogue and pool their resources to support Taiwan in developing military and commercial drone models suited to the island nation’s geography and deterrence needs. If China were to launch an offensive attack against Taiwan, having a system in place to coordinate military efforts and share data gathered by reconnaissance drones in real-time would be a significant boon to Taiwan’s ability to ward off invasion. Moreover, Washington should station strike and surveillance drones at sites in Japan and the Pacific to act as a deterrent against any rash actions that China may take against Taiwan.

From the Russia-Ukraine war to the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict, drones have harnessed global attention while emerging as a critical weapon in countering enemies in asymmetric warfare. Foreign expertise has been useful for Taiwanese firms developing UAVs in collaboration with major international drone manufacturers. As a matter of national defense, Taiwan should give top priority to concrete measures resulting from cooperation with like-minded partners that will help turn Taiwan into a “porcupine” that is invulnerable to assault.

Huynh Tam Sang is a lecturer at Ho Chi Minh City University of Social Sciences and Humanities Faculty of International Relations, a Pacific Forum Young Leaders Program member, and a research fellow at the Taiwan NextGen Foundation.

Chen Kuan-ting is the CEO of the Taiwan NextGen Foundation.

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