The Drone Wars of the Future: Why Taiwan is Not Ukraine

In the past two decades, drones have gone from a military rarity to a battlefield game-changer. The ongoing conflict between and has showcased the critical role of drones in modern warfare. However, according to The Economist a forthcoming paper by the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), a drone war over Taiwan would likely look very different from the one in Ukraine.

The Rise of Kamikaze Drones

While large, fixed-wing drones like the Predator and Reaper dominated a decade ago, loitering munitions or kamikaze drones have gained prominence in recent years. Taiwan could employ kamikaze drones, such as the first-person view (FPV) racing drones used in Ukraine, to target Chinese landing forces. The U.S. could also “flood the airspace” with thousands of larger kamikaze drones to hit enemy ships.

The Range Problem

The main challenge in a potential Taiwan conflict is the vast distances involved. Most small quadcopters used in Ukraine have a range of only a few miles, while even the missile-carrying Bayraktar TB2 can only manage about 186 miles. The closest U.S. base to Taiwan, on Okinawa, is over 497 miles from the Taiwan Strait.

The Drone Wars Of The Future: Why Taiwan Is Not Ukraine

While the U.S. could use motherships to carry drones closer or pre-position them in Taiwan, both options have limitations. The CNAS study recommends developing a “much larger” class of uncrewed aircraft than those prominent in Ukraine.

The Cost Factor

Longer-range drones require larger batteries or engines, increasing weight, size, and power requirements, as noted by a Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) study. While the most common drones in Ukraine are relatively cheap due to battery power, batteries store far less energy per pound than gasoline, a penalty that increases with range.

An American long-range kamikaze drone optimized for a war against could resemble the Iranian Shahed-136, which costs around $80,000 and has a range of over 621 miles. However, improved sensors and seekers capable of hitting moving targets would significantly increase the cost.

China's Advantages

China's proximity to Taiwan allows it to leverage a more favorable range-cost curve, building larger numbers of cheaper systems with shorter travel distances. Its dominance in the consumer drone market also aids in mass-producing small tactical quadcopters during wartime. “If China were to invade Taiwan today,” the CNAS authors conclude, “Chinese forces are better positioned to leverage drones than the or Taiwan.”

DroneXL's Take

The stark differences between the drone wars in Ukraine and a potential conflict over Taiwan underscore the need for the U.S. to adapt its drone strategy. Developing a diverse mix of drones, including larger, longer-range systems, will be crucial in countering China's advantages.

As highlighted in recent DroneXL articles, the U.S. is already taking steps to address these challenges. The Pentagon is pushing the industry to build drones cheaper and faster, recognizing the importance of cost-effective solutions. Companies like Red Cat Holdings are introducing new ISR and precision strike drone systems to meet the evolving needs of modern warfare.

As the global security landscape continues to shift, the U.S. must remain at the forefront of and adapt its strategies to ensure readiness for future conflicts, whether in , , or beyond.


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Haye Kesteloo
Haye Kesteloo

Haye Kesteloo is the Editor in Chief and Founder of DroneXL.co, where he covers all drone-related news, DJI rumors and writes drone reviews, and EVXL.co, for all news related to electric vehicles. He is also a co-host of the PiXL Drone Show on YouTube and other podcast platforms. Haye can be reached at haye @ dronexl.co or @hayekesteloo.

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