In addition to advances at the very central National Chung-Shan Institute of Science and Technology (NCSIST), which is responsible for the development of indigenous systems for Taiwan, the island is now recurrently and rationally exploring off-the-shelf commercial solutions to meet the needs. of its national defense.
This trend occurs in the context of the explosion of the drone market between now and 2030, which the island intends to exploit to gain a place in international defense markets, and the war in Ukraine that confronted Taiwanese leaders with the urgency to exploit this operational market. ability.
Thus, while the national tactical drone and MALE (Middle Altitude Long Endurance) programs continue, the biggest event this year lies in Taiwan’s strategic rise in the field of smaller drones, and in the reflection of the systemic action of leaders to provide the country with a link and efficient industrial tool against an increasingly turbulent Chinese neighbor.
Ammunition on the prowl
On the occasion of the TADTE 2023 exhibition, which had the notable participation of AeroVironment – the company behind the Switchblade – and Lockheed Martin, Taiwan has lifted the veil on several new drones, including an upgraded version of its autonomous anti-radar munition, the Chien Hsiang. The current performance of this drone is distinguished by a flight autonomy of 5 hours and a maximum speed of 185 km/h, reaching 600 km/h in the final attack phase.
For Taiwan, hidden munitions, such as the Chien Hsiang, are of particular importance in the context of strengthening the island’s defensive capabilities in the face of possible military intervention by China. The main objective is to inflict significant losses and costs on the adversary through saturation attacks, while targeting nodal elements such as radars, sensors and access points of communication networks.
The main advance of the new version of the Chien Hsiang “Type II” lies in its deployment from light platforms, specifically the M113 HMMWV vehicles of the Taiwan Army (RoCA), which allows better mobility and greater versatility of the system. In 2019, NCSIST presented a semi-trailer truck carrying six containers containing 12 SEAD Chien Hsiang drones, clearly reminiscent of the Harpy system from the Israeli company IAI. At the time, NCSIST announced an order for 104 of these drones, scheduled for delivery to the Taiwanese military in 2025.
Additionally, during this presentation, NCSIST unveiled another lurking ammunition, the “Type I.” Compact and portable, it can be launched by a single operator from a pneumatic tube. This device is designed to carry out attacks within a radius of 10 kilometers, with a flight range of 15 minutes. Like the Harop and Harpy, the “Type I” is equipped with an EO/IR camera in addition to its explosive charge.
As for the Type II version of the Chien Hsiang, it would be capable of operating beyond the direct line of sight (VLOS) by integrating machine learning algorithms… A topic on which the NCSIST continues its investigation . Already in 2019, the institute presented the latest version of its Hong Que tactical mini drone: the Fire Cardinal. This drone, with a wingspan of 1.2 meters and a take-off weight of 6 kg, is currently used as a test platform to develop object recognition capabilities, as well as high-precision targeting and tracking technologies using artificial intelligence. During the TADTE 2019 show, an NCIST representative told Jane’s that this test drone was equipped with “multi-object tracking and object detection algorithms” with the goal of creating a “fully automated system.”
Tactical drones and MACHO drones
Presented to a group of Western journalists invited to NCIST last March, the second generation of the Albatross tactical drone, which measures 5.3 meters in length and 8.6 meters in wingspan, was also exhibited at the Taipei fair. The announcement of this presentation was made by Lo Cheng-fang, president of Geostat Aerospace and Technology, the Taiwanese company in charge of assembling this platform. According to Cheng-fang, mass production of the drone will begin this year, in line with the political will to quickly establish domestic production capacity.
With a flight endurance of 12 hours and a range of 150 kilometers, with a payload of 55 kilograms (similar performance to Baykar’s TB2), the Albatross II will be deployed primarily for reconnaissance (ISR) and target acquisition missions. The platform is equipped with a synthetic aperture radar (SAR) that allows the creation of 3D relief images. Although the company announces future compatibility with the Sky Word II air-to-air missile, also developed by NCIST, this project still seems distant, given the weight of this hypersonic missile, which exceeds 180 kilograms.
Also on display this year, the MALE Teng-Yun drone is a national project developed by NCIST to support the C5ISR (command, control, computers, communications, cyber, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) needs of the Taiwanese military. Although this program serves as a showcase for the Taiwanese industry, it is worth noting that the Teng Yun is equipped with the Honeywell TPE331 engine, similar to that used in the MQ-9 Reapers and that, in general, the drone industry of the Republic of China largely depends on the United States for the motorization of its most ambitious platforms.
As the first “indigenous” MACHO drone, the Teng Yun raised high hopes during the presentation at the Taipei fair in 2015 and 2019 of two prototypes MU1611 and MU1612, each of which measured 8 meters in length and 18 meters in wingspan.
However, the development of the program has since been delayed by the accident of one of these prototypes during flight tests in February 2021. Despite these setbacks, NCIST is already on the second version of this domestic drone , of which the official specifications announce autonomy. of more than 1,000 kilometers, a flight autonomy of 24 hours and an operational ceiling of 25,000 feet, or approximately 7,620 meters. According to the Taipei Times, in June 2022, one of the upgraded variants, the Teng Yun 2 version, successfully completed a ten-hour test flight.
From civil to military: the new Taiwanese industrial strategy
In July 2022, ROC President Tsai Ing-wen received a 77-page internal briefing report on the reasons for the resistance of the Ukrainian military observed in the first weeks of the conflict. Observing the impact of drones on the Ukrainian theater, as well as the industrial capabilities and delays of the Taiwanese armed forces (RoCA), Tsai Ing-wen initiated the “National Drone Team” strategy aimed at mobilizing all industries and island technologies to compensate for the gap in this segment. The updated goal would be to produce around 3,400 military drones of all categories by 2024, according to a government planning document reviewed by Reuters.
The first actions did not take long. In September 2022, in order to strengthen Taiwan’s industrial base in the field of drones, the Ministry of Defense requested the participation of civil sector companies to meet its needs for small and medium-sized reconnaissance drones. Among the nine companies selected to participate in the first phase of consultation, we find players such as Geosat, Coretronic Intelligent Robotics Corp. (CIRC), and even Thunder Tiger Group, the latter known for manufacturing radio-controlled recreational aircraft models.
It was not necessary to ask these last industrialists. In fact, according to a Drone Industry Insights report published last February, the drone market, estimated at $30.6 billion in 2022 and largely dominated by the Chinese manufacturer DJI (70%), is expected to reach $55.8 billion by 2030. Additionally, US sanctions against Chinese drones and the Taiwanese defense market’s desire to divest from these technological solutions have encouraged local suppliers to respond to their government’s call to fill this gap.
At TADTE 2023 we find the case of Jet Hand Technology Co. (JHTC), a company based in Taiwan, which worked exclusively on drones for infrastructure inspection and mapping, before being selected by the Taiwanese Ministry of Defense as one of the four System Integrators offering anti-drone solutions.
The company will present this year its “soft-kill” solution, which includes a jamming platform intended to jam GNSS signals and control signals in various frequency bands, as well as a passive radar system that uses multiple RF sensors capable of detecting , track and identify incoming signals. drones through triangulation, and an electro-optical detection system. The ability to identify drone models based on RF signals is a key skill, especially when radars cannot differentiate between birds and mini-drones entering a controlled space.
Another Taiwan-based company, Mark Star Servo Tech (MKS), founded in 1999 and specializing in manufacturing servo drives, has turned its attention to the defense sector after years of efforts to obtain mandatory military standards, including MIL-STD. 810G for vibration testing. . The company’s products were eventually used in NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter in 2020, and Lockheed Martin’s Vector Hawk naval drone also adopted MKS technology bricks. The Switchblade drone, which had its heyday in the early days of the Ukrainian war, and the MALE Teng Yun drone developed by the National Chung-Shan Institute of Science and Technology (NCSIST) in Taiwan, also use MKS products.
But under cost pressure, many technological dependencies still persist between Taiwan and the People’s Republic of China, such as in the motors, batteries and electro-optical assemblies segment of RoCA tactical drones. To compensate for this deficiency in the long term, NCSIST must also transfer some of its unique technologies to the civil sector: encrypted data link, brushless motor, etc. In an “internal” technological transfer to the country.
After four years of absence, the 2023 edition of TADTE illustrates Taiwan’s desire to strengthen its security while cultivating its defense industrial base in the drone segment. In this area, the Taiwanese defense industry demonstrates a dynamic of network innovation, bringing together civil and military parties. NCSIST’s domestic technology transfer strategies and active coordination are slowly but surely securing Taiwan’s place in the international military drone market.