US wants Taiwan to buy more kamikaze drones – Asia Times

The US plans to provide Taiwan with more suicide drones, a sale that would seek to bolster the self-governing island’s defenses against a possible Chinese invasion.

But high costs per unit, concerns about the drones’ range and effectiveness in the Pacific and questions about the US’s ability to produce sufficient advanced explosives to arm the weapons could hinder the sale’s deterrent effect.   

The US has approved a potential arms sale to Taiwan involving over a thousand loitering munitions, also known as kamikaze drones, The War Zone reported. The proposed sale includes the AeroVironment Switchblade 300 and Anduril ALTIUS 600M types, both of which have been combat-tested in Ukraine.

The report says the drones could target Chinese landing craft during an amphibious invasion, extending Taiwan’s defensive reach and potentially overwhelming China’s defenses.

The deal, valued at US$60.2 million for Switchblade 300s and $300 million for ALTIUS 600Ms, also encompasses training, support and logistics. The sales are still prospective and formal contracts have yet to be signed, the War Zone report says.

The potential deal highlights the increasing significance of unmanned systems in contemporary warfare, as evidenced by their widespread utilization in Ukraine. Taiwan’s acquisition of the US drones would align with its “porcupine strategy,” which aims to create a formidable asymmetric defense against a numerically superior Chinese military.

The plan comes amid rising tensions in the Indo-Pacific, with both US and Taiwanese authorities cautioning about the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) growing capacity to launch a successful takeover of Taiwan by 2027.

The War Zone states that the drone deal reflects a broader trend of leveraging uncrewed capabilities in defense strategies and underscores the pivotal role such systems could play in future high-end conflicts in the Pacific.

Such prospective sales may also be part of the US Replicator program, which aims to enhance US military capabilities swiftly through the integration of autonomous technology and thus deter China. In May 2024, Asia Times reported that the Switchblade 600 drone is part of the Replicator program.

The initial group of Replicator technologies comprises a range of drones and unmanned systems developed by conventional and pioneering defense firms. Details of the weapons are often kept confidential for security purposes.

The Switchblade drone packs a tank-killing punch in a very small warhead due to its use of CL-20, an explosive 40% more potent than RDX or HMX. Both have been extensively utilized in US military munitions since World War II. However, the US faces significant challenges in procuring enough CL-20 for itself and its allies.

In March 2023, Asia Times reported that most of the military explosives used by the US are manufactured at a single US Army facility in Holston, Tennessee, using outdated mixing systems and production methods from World War II.

Modern explosives like CL-20 cannot be produced using such old-fashioned techniques and can only be manufactured in limited quantities using chemical reactors.

In contrast, China had surpassed the US in developing new explosive technologies, particularly its version of CL-20, which it now produces on a large scale.

The US currently produces 10 tons of CL-20 annually but needs to increase production to 1,000 tons to support widespread use. It may take three to five years for US industries to scale up to meet this demand.

Additionally, the US  relies on China as the sole supplier of six chemical components essential for its military explosives and propellants, casting doubt on the security of US logistics chains.

Cost may also be an issue in supplying Switchblade drones to Taiwan. David Hambling points out in a July 2023 article for 1945 that the cost of a Switchblade drone system consisting of one drone and its sensors, integrated guidance, warhead, data link and launcher was $58,063 in 2022.

Hambling points out that the cost doesn’t include the guidance kit of around $30,000, fielding costs, spares, support, training rounds and simulators. He says that when all costs are considered each Switchblade may cost $80,000.  

Such costs may not be sustainable for Taiwan. In April 2024, Newsweek reported that Ukraine had changed its use of drones in its ongoing conflict with Russia, veering away from costly US models that have not been effective against Russian defenses.

Because of US drones’ high prices and susceptibility to detection by Russian electronic warfare systems, Ukraine has acquired large quantities of drones and components from China despite Beijing’s strong ties with Moscow, the Newsweek report said. It notes that reasonably priced Chinese drones have proven effective in combat, with Ukraine utilizing approximately 10,000 of them per month.

The Newsweek report states that the US Department of Defense (DOD) has recognized these issues and is working with company partners to improve drones’ performance and resilience in combat and electronic warfare environments.

Still, US drones such as Switchblade may not have sufficient range and firepower to be an effective conventional deterrent in the Taiwan Strait. In a March 2024 Proceedings article, Sam Tangredi points out that the Replicator initiative relies on unproven technology and components from China, the country it seeks to counter.

Tangredi says that Replicator’s emphasis on systems over weapons may not provide the strategic advantage needed in a conflict, particularly in the Western Pacific where distances and environmental conditions pose significant challenges to small, inexpensive uncrewed vehicles.

He says that focusing on producing more powerful weapons, such as Long-Range Anti-ship Missiles (LRASM) and sophisticated sea mines, would serve as a more effective deterrent against Chinese aggression, including in the Taiwan Strait.

Despite the potential tactical uses of drone swarms in specific scenarios, Tangredi argues Replicator’s current trajectory is insufficient to overcome the threats posed by the PLA.

He argues that a collection of sensing drones cannot overcome the expanding mass, lethality and reach of the PLA-Navy (PLA-N), PLA Air Force (PLA-AF), and PLA-Rocket Forces (PLA-RF). He says that conventional deterrence in the Taiwan Strait may fail unless Replicator drones such as Switchblade pack more firepower and range.