Flashpoints | Security | East Asia

How UAVs Could Spark a Military Conflict in the Taiwan Strait

It makes tactical, operational, and strategic sense for China to start using UAVs in its incursions into Taiwan’s ADIZ. Taiwan needs to decide now how it would respond.

How UAVs Could Spark a Military Conflict in the Taiwan Strait

A Wing Loong UAV.

Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Much has been written, podcasted, and discussed about recent Chinese intrusions into Taiwan’s air defense identification zones (ADIZ). Among the more polemical analyses was a recent editorial by the Taipei Times advocating for the use and deployment of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). The editorial argues that given the ever-increasing numbers of incursions and the wear it causes on Republic of China Air Force fighter jets and pilots, the Taiwanese armed forces should pursue further development and deployment of UAVs for monitoring incursions by the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF).

The newspaper makes the case that using such systems would be a cost-effective and safer alternative to using manned jets. An added benefit, according to the Taipei Times, would be that the deployment of UAVs would increase the risks for the PLAAF: “if the PLA were to shoot down drones within Taiwan’s airspace, that would be perceived by the international community as a unilateral act of aggression – and possibly an act of war.”

The proposition by the newspaper is rationally driven. While the use of UAVs for monitoring purposes seems indeed worthwhile and potentially effective, it seems unlikely that the PLAAF would suddenly decide to shoot down any Taiwanese UAVs. While China has ramped it its pressure campaign, there are no indications that it seeks to escalate the conflict by committing any blatant acts of war. Rather, these operations appear to stem primarily from military training and political signaling purposes. The incursions correlate strongly to political events that China disapproves of, such as when Taiwan receives foreign delegations or, more recently, during national days of importance in China and Taiwan.

That said, the notion that UAVs could be used in these operations deserves further exploration. However, we should expect UAVs to be deployed not by Taiwan, but rather by China and the PLAAF – we consider it likely that in the near future, we can expect the introduction of Chinese UAVs in these missions. While to date, no UAV has been used in such missions, our impression is that we will likely see the deployment of such types of units in these missions with greater frequency as time carries on.

China has been actively developing, testing, and operating a new generation of UAVs and unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs). At the recent Zhuhai airshow, China demonstrated the new CH-6 UCAV, which according to Song Zhongping, a Beijing-based military affairs analyst, is intended for operations in the Taiwan Strait. Other models on display included the WZ-7, WZ-8, and the GJ-11.

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Franz-Stefan Gady illustrated the growing importance of UAV/UCAVs for Chinese operations in a previous analysis for The Diplomat. He proposed a fictional scenario in which Chinese UAVs and UACVs are used in a potential conflict with Taiwan and the United States in 2028. While his scenario highlights the use of such systems in a full-scale military conflict over Taiwan, an initial introduction of these systems in more minor full-scale operations, such as ADIZ incursion missions, is more probable.

We can expect that the PLAAF will seek to gain (additional) experience in using such systems in stand-alone operations and as part of joint operations, in which manned and unmanned systems collaborate. ADIZ incursions present themselves as ideal, if not perfect, opportunities for this. As Gady noted, such systems would be used in any conflict with Taiwan, meaning that it is likely that the PLAAF would seek to gain experience in peacetime operations. In a sense, these operations are taking place neither in times of peace nor times of war.

According to Dave Axe, the PLAAF has already used surveillance UAVs to track recent U.S., British, and Japanese naval exercises south of Japan. Clearly, China has the operational capabilities and rationale to use UAVs in their operations in the Taiwan Strait – chief among them, ADIZ intrusion missions and operations.

Beyond the operational considerations, we need explore if the deployment of UAVs would be tactically and strategically plausible. As we have previously argued, China has long-employed various forms and methods of salami slicing. Furthermore, we have also illustrated how unmanned systems – in this case unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs) – are well-suited to China’s use of grey-zone tactics, ideal operations between peace and war. In particular, the absence of established patterns and methods on how to deal with incursions has presented itself as a stubborn challenge. All of these considerations ring equally true in the Taiwan Strait. Therefore, we argue that within the ever-advancing framework of salami slicing, and China’s apt use of grey-zone tactics, the use of UAVs and potentially even UCAVs would be ideal for Beijing and is thus highly likely to materialize.

The integration of such systems into ADIZ missions could be considered a minor escalation in a longer ongoing process. Already, the intruding force has over time grown not only in quantity, but also in quality. Whereas earlier missions mainly used fighter jets, current missions include a wide array of different airframes, including nuclear capable bombers, early warning aircraft, and more recently, anti-submarine warfare airplanes. Nearly all are aircraft that could be engaged in offensive operations in a potential conflict with Taiwan. The use of UAVs and possibly subsequently even UCAVs, given that they have not been used in any operations over the Taiwan Strait, would then be a logical, and escalatory, step in this process of seeking to increase the quality of the intruding forces. This maturation process helps China as it seeks to legitimize and subsequently normalize incursions over the vital waterway and into sovereign airspace.

However, the potential use of UAVs should be understood from the grey-zone perspective. As we previously argued, “with no national markings, and devoid of personnel onboard, the possibilities for (direct) communication are almost nil. This ambiguity in communication could lead to a great deal of confusion and miscommunication.” The only viable communication alternative would be via military and diplomatic channels: Any communication would have to go from the intercepting Taiwanese fighter pilot to their home base, up the chain of command, and then to its Chinese counterpart down to the individual unit and operator of UAV(s). The time required for establishing this communication process would then present itself as valuable time for the PLAAF: While the process is playing out, China’s UAVs would intrude farther into Taiwan’s ADIZ (or potentially even Taiwanese airspace). This would fit with China’s desired messaging toward both domestic and Taiwanese audiences, illustrating Chinese technological capabilities and allowing the PLA to demonstrate how it can intrude deeper and deeper into Taiwanese airspace at will.

Such tactics would fit neatly into the framework of salami-slicing tactics. The use of UAVs would not necessarily constitute a dramatic escalation; nevertheless, it would clearly signal a form of escalation. Taiwan’s options in such a scenario are not optimistic. As we reasoned, “the apparent lack of diplomatic interaction compels opposing actors to settle on a limited framework of counter-options.” Most escalatory among them would be the decision to violently engage these unmanned intrusions by destroying the intruding airframe. While the Taiwanese government has not made any explicit statements that it would pursue such an option in the case of the Chinese missions into its ADIZ, Taipei has indicated that it would shoot down any Chinese UAVs intruding into its airspace over the South China Sea and held military drills to practice this. It remains to be seen if Taipei would extend this policy to unmanned Chinese ADIZ missions, but if so, it would mean a significant escalatory action.

Other, less violent, alternatives, are equally challenging. While mid-air collisions could be employed as a deliberate countering tactic, resulting in the invader’s destruction, this course of action carries with it the risk of escalation and even has the potential to establish a dangerous new precedent for countering Chinese threats. A less violent and dangerous alternative would be the disabling of UAVs by electronic jamming via, among other methods, jamming drones; however, whether Taiwan is technically capable of such moves is unclear. Even if Taiwan has the capacity to interdict Chinese drones in this way, the implication that Taiwan would have to engage directly with a foreign aircraft remains.

In each of these three scenarios the escalatory step of destruction or physical interference would be conducted by Taiwan, not China, making it possible for China to paint Taiwan as the aggressor. Under these circumstances it would be difficult for Taiwan to maintain any de-escalatory intentions or momentum.

The final alternative would be for the Taiwanese government to make the decision to abrogate its national security responsibilities and allow an incursion to take place. However, this ultimately involves the risk of losing in a larger political battle and demonstrating a lack of willingness to defend the state to other nations.

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The sum of these scenarios illustrates the diplomatic, military, and political problems that the ROC Air Force and government would face if or when China decides to include UAVs or UACVs into its ADIZ incursion missions. At the same time, as we have attempted to demonstrate, it is well within the realm of expectations that China could seek to integrate unmanned aerial vehicles into its operations, for operational, tactical, strategic, and geopolitical reasons. Therefore, it is essential that Taiwan, sooner rather than later, establish public policies about how it would engage with hostile unmanned systems.

Commentators have posited that direct conflict between China and Taiwan is unlikely; however, as Joseph Nye recently argued, while military conflict in East Asia is not imminent there is a risk that “we may get there by accident.” The use of UAVs over the Taiwan Strait increases the risk of such an “accident” significantly, and could lead to escalation spiraling that, for domestic and international reasons, would be difficult to control, temper, or reverse. In his comments, Nye highlights the “sleepwalker syndrome” as a pathway to possible conflict. Ironically, unmanned (particularly automated) aerial systems resemble many of the characteristics of sleepwalking: in both cases communication is not possible, unless by strong intervention. And such intervention could have dire consequences for Taiwan, and the region’s security situation overall.