JC Tech General Manager Robert Cheng poses with a Flyingfish 200 suicide drone in Taipei. CNA photo Sept. 10, 2022
From battlegrounds in Ukraine to Taiwan's offshore military outposts, drones have become synonymous with 21st century warfare, and their stealth, maneuverability, and relatively low cost suggest they could play an even greater role in the future.
Ukraine has demonstrated their effectiveness in asymmetric warfare as it blunts the advances of more numerous Russian forces, deploying Turkish-made Bayraktar TB2 drones and Switchblade suicide drones donated by the U.S. to attack targets and gain intelligence.
It is a lesson that has not been lost on Taiwan, itself threatened by a larger neighbor and committed to a defense strategy centered on asymmetrical warfare.
At the inauguration of a state-run drone research and development (R&D) center in Chiayi County last month, President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) pledged to support drone research to strengthen the country's asymmetric combat capabilities.
But it is domestic drone producers, eager to upgrade the first-generation of domestically made drones Taiwan currently possesses, that could offer the quickest shot in the arm to Taiwan's defenses.
One such manufacturer is JC Tech located in Taipei's Neihu Technology Park, which started developing drones in 2018 when it teamed up with two other companies on a project to help the Coast Guard build a fleet of single-rotor drones.
JC Tech President Robert Cheng (鄭志誠) said his company now has built and tested prototypes of a suicide drone called the Flyingfish that was inspired by the U.S.-made Switchblades deployed in Ukraine and has been nicknamed the "Taiwanese Switchblade."
According to Cheng, JC Tech expects to sign its first contract for the product with a Southeast Asian country next month and hopes to one day supply the Flyingfish to Taiwan's military.
The new drone comes in three sizes, with the middle-of-the-line Flyingfish 200 boasting a payload of 500 grams, roughly equivalent to 10 grenades, he said.
Made of a plastic-like material, the Flyingfish 200 drone is 115 centimeters long but weighs only 2.2 kilograms fully loaded, making it ideal for soldiers to carry into battle, and it can target tanks, ships or personnel within a 10-kilometer range with the help of built-in GPS, AI and a camera, Cheng said.
Once it has identified its target, it swoops down and crashes into it, detonating the explosives, he said.
Costing less than US$3,000, the Flyingfish 200 has a much lower price point than cruise missiles or other combat drones, making it cost effective to deploy in large numbers in urban or naval warfare, he said.
"When the enemy approaches [Taiwan's] coastal waters, the Flyingfish drones will prove to be a formidable weapon for asymmetric combat, because they are so easy to use and can be used in great numbers," Cheng said.
Meanwhile, aviation company GEOSAT, which began developing drones in 2008, has been collaborating with the National Chung-Shan Institute of Science and Technology (NCSIST) -- Taiwan's state-run weapons developer and manufacturer -- on the Albatross II drone.
The Albatross II is an updated version of the first-generation Albatross already being used by Taiwan's military.
The original Albatross delivered big in early August when it filmed a standoff between Taiwan's Ma Kong guided missile destroyer and a People's Liberation Army Ma'anshan frigate during China's live-fire military exercises around Taiwan held in response to a visit by U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
But with drone technology advancing rapidly, Taiwan's military felt the need to upgrade its Albatross drones, a task it entrusted to the NCSIST, GEOSAT CEO Lo Cheng-fang (羅正方) said.
Lo believed that because drones could have a more prominent role in future military standoffs between Taiwan and China, Taiwan should adopt the "porcupine" strategy by complementing its missile defense network with unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs).
A UCAV like the Albatross II would fit the bill, he said.
Capable of both surveillance and combat functions, the Albatross II has a longer range than the first-generation Albatross drones (250 km to 150 km), along with improved flight endurance, better communications, and a bigger payload, Lo said.
The Albatross II also features a longer communication range and can transfer data via microwave transmission or satellites, which would be especially useful if China were to blockade Taiwan because it could transmit real-time data on enemy movements, he said.
Another major improvement is that it is equipped with synthetic aperture radar, which enables it to conduct surveillance over a wider range with less interference from limited light or poor weather conditions, according to Lo.
The GEOSAT CEO believed that the Albatross II, which is compatible with locally developed Sky Sword air-to-air missiles and 2.75-inch rockets, could outperform the Bayraktar TB2 drones, which gained fame for sinking the Russian cruiser Moskva in the Russia-Ukraine war.
He said the new NCSIST and GEOSAT drone has a wider wingspan, a higher-output engine, and higher-torque propellers than the Turkish drone.
Lo would not say when the Albatross II drones might begin service, but said that with tests proceeding as scheduled, the drones should enter mass production next year.
Su Tzu-yun (蘇紫雲), an analyst at the Institute for National Defense and Security Research, said the upgrading of Taiwan's drones would have military benefits.
Suicide drones, in particular, can be used to great effect when targeting smaller PLA ships during amphibious warfare, and military drones can be used in place of radar stations should the latter be destroyed to keep command centers informed of what is happening on the front lines of combat.
The Teng Yun drones, for example, which operate at an altitude of 6,000 meter or higher and will be getting their own upgrade in 2024, can effectively conduct surveillance within a 300 km radius of Taiwan proper, he said.
Su agreed with Cheng on the power and importance of numbers.
The combination of different drones will "allow Taiwan to amass a sizable arsenal of precision strike munitions to counter the PLA's numerical advantage, greatly leveraging the efficacy of Taiwan's armed forces in defending the nation," Su said.
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