Taiwan must adopt ‘Hellscape’ drone plan against China

A typical present-day maritime drone
A typical present-day maritime drone - Reuters

If the Taiwanese military isn’t already planning to create a drone “hellscape” in the Taiwan Strait, it should start. Now. Taiwan’s autonomy could hinge on whether, and how quickly, its armed forces can develop, build and deploy fleets and swarms of robots whose sole mission is to wreck Chinese forces attempting to cross the Strait.

The urgency is new. As recently as last fall, Taiwan probably could’ve assumed it wouldn’t fight alone in the event of a Chinese attack. The United States would’ve mustered other allies and sailed to Taiwan’s defense.

But the last four months have signaled a profound shift in the world’s balance of power. Starting in early October, Russia-aligned Republicans – who narrowly control the US House of Representatives – refused to vote on $106 billion in fresh US aid to Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan.

Amid the chaos in Washington DC, Taiwanese officials surely are second-guessing their island democracy’s long-standing assumption that, in the event of a Chinese invasion across the Taiwan Strait, the United States would honor its obligation, codified in a 1979 law, to fight for Taiwan.

Taipei must bolster its defenses – fast. Ironically, the same war that has triggered pro-Russian Republicans and prompted their betrayal of America’s allies could point the way for Taiwanese military planners. After 23 months of hard fighting with a much more powerful foe, Ukrainian forces have leveraged their advantages in innovation and high technology – and fielded the world’s biggest and deadliest drone army. Its drone navy has also achieved some stunning successes.

Today the Ukrainian navy has no large warships. Instead, it has flotillas of 20-foot “Sea Baby” drones that, packed with explosives and controlled via satellite, have harried, damaged and sunk Russian warships, ultimately helping to drive the Russian Black Sea Fleet from the Western Black Sea so Ukrainian farmers can export billions of dollars worth of grain.

Each Sea Baby costs just $300,000. A pittance in naval terms.

Owing to the threat from Russian missiles, the Ukrainian air force can’t safely support Ukrainian ground forces, so the ground forces have deployed a vast force of tiny, two-pound explosive drones – $500 apiece – that controllers steer via virtual-reality headsets. A network of small workshops, and even individual volunteers in their own homes, build tens of thousands of these first-person-view drones every month. They now account for perhaps half of Russian vehicle losses.

Observing the Ukraine war, Pentagon planners quickly understood the world had changed. A country defending its own borders no longer needs hundreds of billions of dollars worth of manned fighter jets, tanks and warships. While those systems are still important, they no longer represent a warfare monopoly.

It’s not for no reason that, while continuing to advocate the production of multi-billion dollar destroyers, $500-million stealth bombers and tanks worth millions of dollars apiece, officials in US Indo-Pacific Command devised a scheme for a robotic defense of Taiwan. They called it “Hellscape.”

Borrowing heavily from the Ukrainians’ experience, the Americans proposed deploying scores or even hundreds of small drone boats to meet a Chinese invasion fleet sailing across the 100-mile-wide Taiwan Strait. Each boat could pack enough firepower to damage or even sink a Chinese warship. And even if the Chinese destroyed most of the attacking drones, the confusion and chaos should at least delay the invasion.

“This hellscape, this churn you cause in the invasion, lets you mobilize, get your act together and start delivering the long-range fires that are going to actually take out the larger amphibious ships and surface ships,” is how naval analyst Bryan Clark explained the concept to USNI News, the news website of the US Naval Institute.

The Hellscape plan promised to give a US-Taiwan alliance a huge defensive advantage. That advantage would only grow if the Americans added aerial drones to the drone boats executing the concept.

But Hellscape would remain just that – a plan – if the United States declined to intervene in a Chinese attack on Taiwan. The possibility of full Republican control over the American presidency and the Congress following this November’s elections, means American isolationism – or, worse, a tacit American alliance with authoritarian powers – is a real risk.

Can Taiwan pull off Hellscape on its own? There are reasons to be optimistic. Two years ago, the Taiwanese defense ministry issued its first-ever tender for an aerial drone swarm. It asked local tech firms to produce an initial 3,000 drones for $159 million.

That’s a lot of money for just a few thousand drones, but it’s worth noting what Taipei is trying to do with the tender. It’s not just trying to buy a batch of drones – it’s also trying to encourage the expansion of the local drone industry, so that the industry will be ready to build a lot more drones fast if a Chinese invasion force begins massing.

There’s similar action on the surface drone front. The Taiwanese defense ministry has launched development of the Seashark 400 drone boat, which is essentially a copy of the Ukrainian Sea Baby. If Ukraine with its innovative but immature tech sector could build an entire robotic fleet in just a year or so, tech-powerhouse Taiwan should be able to build an even bigger robotic fleet, faster.

It shouldn’t wait. If China attacks, America might not be coming to Taiwan’s rescue. The island democracy’s drones might be the only thing that can save it.

Broaden your horizons with award-winning British journalism. Try The Telegraph free for 3 months with unlimited access to our award-winning website, exclusive app, money-saving offers and more.