Taiwan’s False Drone Hope?

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Taiwan’s False Drone Hope?

Taiwan appears to be showing signs of interest in developing drones as combat aircraft. It’s unlikely to work.

Developments in the last week could promise hope, or doom, for the Taiwanese air force.

The Republic of China Air Force once possessed more and better modern fighters and other aerial weapons than its rival, China’s People’s Liberation Army Air Force. But China’s rapid military modernization and Beijing’s growing ties with the United States and European powers have eroded Taiwan’s air-power advantage and limited prospects for the ROCAF’s own modernization.

Now Taiwan is mulling options for modernizing its aerial arsenal, in light of its increasingly powerful opponent and strained diplomatic standing. Homegrown robotic warplanes could offer a partial solution, but it’s unclear whether Taipei has the resources to design and build them.

It has been more than 15 years since Taipei was last able to procure foreign-produced jet fighters. Efforts since 2006 to secure 66 F-16C fighters from the United States have been stymied by Washington’s reluctance to anger Beijing. Washington had considered offering, as a consolation prize, sensor upgrades to Taiwan’s existing fleet of 144 F-16As, but last week a source told Taipei Times that now even these upgrades are ‘off the radar’ in Washington.

That means Taiwan might have to develop its own aircraft and weapons, or make do without.

It has been done before. Beginning in the 1990s, the ROCAF acquired 126 F-CK-1 lightweight fighters from Taiwan’s Aerospace Industrial Development Corporation. Displays at last week’s Taipei Aerospace & Defense Technology Exhibition illustrated several current Taiwanese initiatives that could represent a sort of spiritual successor to the F-CK-1.

At the exhibition, the official Chun-Shan Institute of Science and Technology showed off two UAV concepts that could form the basis of future, Taiwanese-built drone warplanes.

One appears to be a clone of the US MQ-9 Reaper, a propeller driven, unmanned attack plane that the US Air Force has used extensively in Iraq and Afghanistan. The exhibition display showed the Taiwanese Reaper clone spotting targets for an F-16.

More radically, another display depicted the Reaper-esque UAV directing a second drone as it fired an air-to-air missile at a Chinese fighter. The missile-firing robot appeared to be modelled on the US Navy’s experimental X-47B, a jet-powered, stealthy robot designed to fly off of carrier decks on ground-attack and reconnaissance missions.

While some analysts have proposed an air-to-air mission for the X-47B, the Navy hasn’t signalled any interest in such a capability.

The Reaper represents a fairly basic airframe integrated with sophisticated sensors and a global command-and-control network based on towers and satellites. With its more limited geographic scope, it shouldn’t be difficult for Taiwan to design and build a similar, albeit scaled-down, system.

But no nation – not even the United States – is developing dogfighting UAVs, as air-to-air combat remains one of the most complex air-power functions, still beyond the capacity of existing drones. If Taipei is truly expecting robotic warplanes to replace manned fighters in the air-to-air role in the near future, it will have to quickly become a world leader in military robotics.

In other words, dogfighting drones could represent a false hope for an air force doomed to gradually waste away as its existing fighters age out, and no new ones become available. Some projections see the ROCAF's current 400-strong fighter fleet declining by half by 2025, while China’s own fleet expands.

‘The fighter gap, if not bridged in a timely manner, could permanently solidify the already tilting cross-Strait air-power balance in favour of China,’ the US-Taiwan Business Council warned in a 2010 report. Drones are unlikely to reverse that tilt.