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PLA Drones Off Taiwan’s East Coast: The Strategic Implications

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PLA Drones Off Taiwan’s East Coast: The Strategic Implications

Unmanned aerial vehicles operating to the east of Taiwan serve multiple purposes for China: gathering intel, testing joint operations, and sending a political signal.

PLA Drones Off Taiwan’s East Coast: The Strategic Implications

A CH-4 (Rainbow) UAV at Airshow China Zhuhai 2022.

Credit: Wikimedia Commons/ Infinty 0

After launching a series of military exercises around Taiwan in April, China has increased rather than decreased its military activities in the vicinity of Taiwan. For one thing, it has sent unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) on patrols off Taiwan’s east coast multiple times. These drones represent China’s progressive advancement in unmanned systems technology. They are not only available in sufficient quantities but also offer a wide variety of flight modes to choose from.

On April 27, one TB-001 (Twin-Tailed Scorpion) drone was spotted off Taiwan for the first time as it flew around the island counterclockwise within the air defense identification zone (ADIZ) claimed by Taipei. Five days later, one BZK-005 drone of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy flew along Taiwan’s east coastline clockwise. And on May 11, one CH-4 (Rainbow) drone of the PLA Army was present off Taiwan’s east coast, flying clockwise from north to south.

To begin with, what matters militarily is that these drones are not just flying vehicles; they count on flight guidance and data links to fulfill specific functions. For that reason, quite a few analysts view such vehicles more as unmanned aircraft systems than mere UAVs. Therefore, the PLA’s drone activities off Taiwan’s east coast were partly aimed at mapping routes; they were meant to test these drones’ navigation systems and gauge Taiwan’s reconnaissance capabilities at the same time.

The PLA would be particularly keen to find out whether, in the event of an escalation of tensions in the Taiwan Strait, its manned aircraft could fly relatively easily to the airspace east of Taiwan and launch strikes on the island from there, or whether these aircraft could verify or assess battle results from there. In light of Taiwan’s air defense capabilities, the answer that the PLA got was very likely negative. As a result, UAVs, rather than manned aircraft, became the PLA’s priority choice for the missions mentioned above.

In addition, also noteworthy is the possibility that the TB-001s of the PLA Air Force or Rocket Force, BZK-005s of the PLA Navy, and Rainbow 4s of the PLA Army of the Eastern Theater Command might be rehearsing joint operations procedures while taking turns patrolling the airspace east of Taiwan over the past few weeks. Integration of command and control systems across the services is a task for China’s theater commands. The effectiveness of such integration could be observed from the exercises around Taiwan, an aspect that observers will continue focusing their attention on.

That PLA drones of all sorts have been able to function effectively is supposed to have been made possible by the BeiDou-3 navigation satellite system, which became operational in 2018. The BeiDou-3 system contributed to the effective integration of data links across different platforms and the application of the integrated links in realistic military exercises.

China’s use of drones also have implications for “grey zone” competition in the Taiwan Strait. Verbal confrontations sometimes occur between fighter pilots of the two sides of the Taiwan Strait in mid-air close encounters between them. During the Cold War, similar verbal exchanges also happened between Soviet Union and U.S. fighter pilots in standoffs between them in the sky. There are other ways to “get the message across” to the other side, such as using gestures or light signals in a forcible way.

Whatever the choice, the possibility of unintended consequences always exists. For instance, the 2001 collision between a Chinese warplane and a U.S. EP-3 spy plane over the South China Sea left in its wake long-running diplomatic tensions between Beijing and Washington.

With the use of drones, unintended escalations could be avoided to a great extent. A drone is free of subjective human factors on the part of the pilot. It is theoretically subject to control from its ground control station. Drones are thus more suited for use in the grey zone between war and peace. And should an accident happen, the opposing two sides would find it easier to de-escalate the tensions as long as there are no casualties involved.

For example, in March 2023, a Russian Su-27 fighter jet forced down a U.S. MQ-9 Reaper over the Black Sea, but no armed conflict between the two countries happened as a result. In 2019, Iran shot down a U.S. RQ-4 Global Hawk. Before that, Iran even captured a U.S. RQ-170 Sentinel using electronic warfare techniques. Although Washington and Tehran have been using tough rhetoric against each other for years, they still refrained from taking further military action. Examples of this kind help other countries understand more about how to employ UAVs in a flexible manner.

The constant presence of PLA drones off Taiwan’s east coast suggests other objectives than preparing to attack military facilities in the eastern parts of the island. A more probable motivation is to collect information on eastern Taiwan, test the links between drones and the BeiDou-3 system, and conduct joint exercises alongside PLA Navy warships in the waters east of Taiwan.

There may also be an element of psychological warfare. The PLA started deploying UAVs to the airspace around the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands in 2013 in an attempt to disrupt Japan’s air defense for the islands step by step. At an UAV show in Beijing in 2014, aerial photos taken by civilian UAVs of the East China Sea and the disputed islands were put on display, serving as propaganda materials to the advantage of China.

Therefore, it is reasonable to suspect that China might use its drones flying around Taiwan to record videos of certain specific objects on the island, similar to the images released of military posts on Taiwan’s frontline Kinmen Islands in 2022. China’s drones might also harass Taiwan’s naval ships monitoring PLA Navy ships in the waters east of Taiwan. Video footage of this kind could be turned into materials for digital public opinion warfare that serve China’s interests. These tactical maneuvers by PLA drones may be seen more frequently in the coming years.

The manned-unmanned team-up being pursued by the PLA is a growing threat that Taiwan must take seriously. The threat could be neutralized by means of hard-kill solutions, such as physical destruction, or soft-kill ones in the form of electronic warfare. Whatever the choice, the most suitable course of action must be selected after careful military planning and consideration of diplomatic factors and cross-strait relations.

Taiwan’s chosen action plan should also be rehearsed in advance by relevant government agencies in political-military war games so that in the event of an emergency situation, no time would be lost and no government authorities would be caught unprepared. If not, Taiwan might not have enough time to make decisions. We might also fall into a trap set by the enemy and disclose unwittingly vital information about our countermeasures.