Taiwan ramps up military drone development

Taiwanese leaders are rethinking their defenses as China increases military pressure in the region. Unable to match Beijing's forces in numbers, Taiwan is now pursuing a strategy that places greater emphasis on asymmetric warfare, with drones playing an essential role.

At the push of a button, a Taiwanese-made drone uses artificial intelligence to lift off and take flight. Originally designed for disaster relief, the aircraft has a new mission: defending Taiwan. The drone's engineers say it will be able to communicate with radar systems to detect enemy drones and send the data to commanders in real-time.

William Chen, the chairman of Taiwanese drone maker Thunder Tiger, says the device will be able to fly above an enemy drone to monitor it and even bring it down. "This system will be used at key facilities such as airports and nuclear power plants," says Chen.

Currently, Taiwan's defenses are based around conventional equipment such as tanks, ships and fighter jets. But as China's military grows in quality and quantity, Taiwan's position is becoming increasingly precarious.

A former head of Taiwan's armed forces thinks it's time for a new direction.

Lee Hsi-Min, the Strategic Advisor for the Institute for National Defense Security Research, says, "If we can't respond to asymmetric warfare and fight China conventionally with fighters, ships, and tanks, we can't win. If we can make a variety of surveillance and attack drones in sufficient quantities, they'll play an extremely important role in strengthening our defenses."

Former head of the Taiwanese military Lee Hsi-Min

Lessons learned from Ukraine

Drones have already proven their importance in the war in Ukraine. Ukrainian forces have been using them to stymie Russia's much larger force, conducting surveillance and strikes.

Taiwan appears to have taken note and is bolstering its defenses by reconfiguring civilian drones for military use. In August last year, Taiwan opened a new research center tasked with developing drone technology. It's a joint venture between a defense institution and private companies.

Taiwan opened a new research and development center tasked with developing drone technology in August, 2022.

Militarizing civilian tech

A drone that was originally developed by a private company to deliver packages has been fitted with a bigger battery. The upgrade enables it to carry a high-definition camera and stay in the air for extended periods, making it capable of military surveillance.

Taiwanese forces want this kind of drone to be able to fly for as long as six hours and reach an altitude of 1,000 meters.

They also want to ensure that all parts are made in Taiwan so they will still be available in the event of a Chinese blockade.

The head of the joint project says the development of drones will also set the pattern for defense cooperation between civilian companies and the Taiwanese military.

The question is how quickly Taiwan can build out its asymmetric warfare capabilities. The head of a Taiwanese drone firm believes it's crucial to tap into the technological and production prowess of Taiwanese businesses.

Lo Cheng-Fang, the CEO of GEOSAT Aerospace & Technology

Lo Cheng-Fang, the CEO of GEOSAT Aerospace & Technology, says, "If the vitality of civilian companies can be put to use in defense, it will bring a change to the Taiwanese mindset lead to great confidence."