Sale Of Over 1,000 Kamikaze Drones To Taiwan Points To Grand “Hellscape” Counter-China Plans

The U.S. government has approved the potential sale of over a thousand loitering munitions, also known as kamikaze drones, a mix of Switchblade 300 and ALTIUS 600M types, both of which have been used in combat in Ukraine, to the Taiwanese armed forces. Large numbers of relatively cheap kamikaze drones would give Taiwan extremely valuable additional capacity to attack Chinese forces during any future conflict across the Taiwan Strait. In particular, the loitering munitions could be used to engage warships in the strait, and especially incoming Chinese landing craft, in response to an amphibious invasion. Altius 600s could also be used to deploy resilient mesh sensor networks over large portions of the strait, which could drastically enhance the targeting efficiency for other Taiwanese weaponry and overall situational awareness.

The prospective arms sales announcements follow recent renewed public discussion about a secretive U.S.-led plan to defend the island from an invasion from the mainland by using hordes of uncrewed aerial systems, boats, and underwater vehicles to turn the airspace and waters surrounding the island into a “hellscape.”

Taiwanese forces already train regularly to employ anti-tank guided missiles, among other weapons, against enemy landing craft and amphibious armored vehicles in coastal defense scenarios, as seen in the video below. Loitering munitions would significantly extend the range at which those targets could be attacked and can do so in indirect ways. Taiwanese units could also use the kamikaze drones, especially Switchblades, to attack enemy forces during any ensuing fighting on the island, as well.

The longer-range ALTIUS 600Ms could be employed against targets further out, as well, potentially overwhelming defenses and damaging even larger surface vessels by targeting key systems like radars and communications arrays that could leave them combat ineffective. Taiwanese forces on outlying islands in the Taiwan Strait, which is around 110 miles (180 kilometers) wide at its shortest, could also use kamikaze drones to launch other kinds of harassing attacks, including on certain areas along the shore of the mainland. Taiwan’s Kinmen County sits less than 10 miles from China proper. Just trying to swat down all these drones would suck up valuable anti-air weapons from China’s on-hand arsenal.

A map showing the Taiwanese-controlled outlying islands of Kinmen County (to the northeast just off the mainland coast), Penghu County (to the east in the Taiwan Strait), and the Dongsha Islands (to the southwest), as well as Taiwan itself. The red pin is the location of one of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army’s myriad bases on the opposite side of the Strait. Google Maps

The Switchblade 300 and ALTIUS 600M both offer secondary surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities, though the latter is much more capable in this regard. They can operate in this role independently or networked together in swarms, which could also help find targets and improve overall situational awareness. Creating very large mesh network swarms, as noted in the opening of this article, can provide massive synergistic effects, especially when it comes to targeting and understanding what the enemy is doing and where. It also complicates the enemy’s ability to blind their adversary from such intelligence. While this capability may not be included in this initial order, it could very well be where Taiwan’s intentions are headed in the near future.

The U.S. military’s Defense Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA) announced the U.S. State Department’s approval of the two prospective deals for Switchblade 300 and ALTIUS 600Ms for Taiwan late yesterday. The U.S. government does not formally recognize Taiwan as an independent country, but reserves the right to sell arms to and otherwise work with authorities on the island. As such, the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office in the United States (TERCO), Taiwan’s de facto embassy in the United States, is listed as the entity that would be buying the kamikaze drones.

The Switchblade deal is valued at $60.2 million and includes “seven hundred twenty (720) Switchblade 300 (SB300) All Up Rounds (AURs) (includes 35 fly-to-buy AURs) and one hundred one (101) SB300 fire control systems (FCS),” according to DSCA. The Switchblade 300s will include versions with “anti-personnel and anti-armor” capabilities, the notice adds.

“First line spares packs; operator manuals; operator and maintenance training; logistics and fielding support; Lot Acceptance Testing (LAT); U.S. Government technical assistance, including engineering services, program management, site surveys, facilities, logistics, and maintenance evaluations; quality assurance and de-processing team; field service representative(s); transportation; and other related elements of logistics and program support,” are also part of the complete package.

“Implementation of this proposed sale will require the assignment of eight U.S. Government and two contractor representatives for a duration of up to five years to support equipment fielding, training, and program management,” DSCA notes.

The proposed sale of ALTIUS 600Ms has an estimated price tag of $300 million. Per DSCA, the complete package consists of the following:

“Up to 291 ALTIUS 600M-V systems, comprised of an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) loitering munition with extensible warhead and electro-optical/infrared (EO/IR) camera; ALTIUS 600 inert training UAVs; Pneumatic Integrated Launch Systems (PILS); PILS transport trailers; ground control systems; associated support, including spares; battery chargers; operator and maintenance training; operator, maintenance, and training manuals; technical manuals; logistics and fielding support; testing; technical assistance CONUS and OCONUS, including for engineering services; program management; site surveys; facility, logistics and maintenance evaluations; quality assurance and de-processing team support; field service representative support; transportation; and other related elements of logistics and program support.”

This looks to be the first mention of the ALTIUS 600M-V and it is unclear how this differs from the baseline 600M. The War Zone has reached out to prime contractor Anduril for more information.

“Implementation of this proposed sale will require assignment of 5 U.S. Government and 12 contractor representatives for a duration of up to two years to support equipment fielding/training and program management,” according to DSCA.

It is important to stress that these are still prospective sales. If Taiwanese authorities do pursue them, the contents of the two packages and their final costs could change significantly before formal contracts are signed.

The Switchblade 300 and ALTIUS 600M represent two very different categories of loitering munition.

The 5.5-pound Switchblade 300 typically comes prepackaged in a self-contained launch tube that can be stuffed in a backpack and it can be employed by a single individual via a handheld controller. Multi-round launchers, which can be installed on vehicles or boats, are also available. Each one of the loitering munitions has a warhead similar in size to a 40mm grenade.

The Switchblade 300’s diminutive size also means it is a relatively short-range and low-endurance system. The baseline version has a maximum reach of some six miles (10 kilometers), but newer versions can extend that out to nearly 19 miles (30 kilometers). The loitering munition’s total endurance is around 15-20 minutes depending on how it is configured. The Switchblade 300 is a highly automated system as you can read more about in this past War Zone feature.

The ALTIUS 600M is a larger and far longer-ranged design with swarming capabilities, though its exact specifications are unclear. The baseline ALTIUS 600 drone, from which the loitering munition M version is derived, can weigh up to 27 pounds. It has a maximum range of 276 miles (around 440 kilometers) and can stay aloft for at least four hours. Based on what is known about the even more capable ALTIUS 700M, the 600M likely trades range and performance to optimize its destructive capabilities, but would still have exponentially greater reach and endurance than the Switchblade 300.

ALTIUS 600Ms are not a man-portable system and, based on the information in the DSCA notice, the examples that Taiwan could receive look set to be loaded into launch tubes mounted on trailers. Those trailers-based launchers could still be very mobile. The Pneumatic Integrated Launch System (PILS) launch tubes included in the potential sale to Taiwan have also been demonstrated in the past fitted to trucks and other ground vehicles, as well as loaded on helicopters.

A 4×4 buggy equipped with two Pneumatic Integrated Launch System (PILS) launch tubes deploys a standard ALTIUS 600 drone during a US Army test. US Army

The prospective sales of the Switchblade 300s and ALTISU 600Ms to Taiwan underscore the very real threats that various tiers of kamikaze drones and other uncrewed aerial systems pose, which have now been brought fully into the mainstream thanks to the ongoing conflict in Ukraine. However, they are not new, as The War Zone has repeatedly highlighted over the years. Taiwanese authorities are well aware of this reality and loitering munition designs have been developed domestically already.

The 2023 video below from Taiwan’s National Chung-Shan Institute of Science and Technology (NCSIST) highlights various domestic drone developments, including the Chien Hsiang loitering munition.

The significant role loitering munitions and other uncrewed platforms will play in any future cross-strait conflict is not lost on Taiwan’s chief benefactor, the United States, either. For years, U.S. authorities have been pushing their Taiwanese counterparts to acquire more low-cost loitering munitions and drones as part of a larger asymmetric defense strategy, often referred to as the “porcupine strategy.” Wargames, including those conducted under the auspices of the U.S. military, have continually provided evidence that swarms of relatively cheap networked drones with high degrees of autonomy could have game-changing impacts on any future fight over Taiwan, as you can read more about here.

Within the Pentagon, ideas for how to leverage large volumes of uncrewed capabilities in the defense of Taiwan have evolved in the past five to 10 years into a strategy now nicknamed Hellscape. The core underlying concepts of operations, which could also be applied more broadly in a future high-end conflict against China in the Pacific, first emerged publicly last year.

“The components in INDOPACOM [U.S. Indo-Pacific Command] have been experimenting now for the last five to 10 years with many of those unmanned capabilities. Those will be an asymmetric advantage,” now-retired U.S. Navy Adm. John Aquilino, then head of INDOPACOM, told attendees at a conference the National Defense Industry Association (NDIA) hosted in August 2023, according to Defense One. “So operational concepts that we are working through are going to help amplify our advantages in this theater…there’s a term, hellscape, that we use.”

“They [the Chinese] want to offer the world a short, sharp war [over Taiwan] so that it is a fait accompli before the world can get their act together,” Navy Adm. Samuel Paparo, Aquilino’s successor as INDOPACOM’s top officer, told The Washington Post‘s Josh Rogin on the sidelines of annual Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, according to a piece published last week. “My job is to ensure that between now and 2027 and beyond, the U.S. military and the allies are capable of prevailing.”

US Navy Adm. Samuel Paparo, head of US Indo-Pacific Command, speaks at the 2024 Shangri-La Dialogue. USN Petty Officer 1st Class John Bellino

In recent years, U.S. and Taiwanese officials have warned that China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) could feel confident in its ability to launch a successful armed intervention against Taiwan by 2027, if not earlier.

The Shangri-La Dialogue, which the United Kingdom-based International Institute for Strategic Studies think tank hosts, is intended to offer a unique forum for top military and government officials from countries primarily in the Asia-Pacific region to discuss defense and security issues. U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and his Chinese counterpart Minister Dong Jun, as well as Adm. Paparo and many others, spoke at the event his year, which ran from May 31 to June 2.

“I want to turn the Taiwan Strait into an unmanned hellscape using a number of classified capabilities,” Paparo also told Rogin. “So that I can make their lives utterly miserable for a month, which buys me the time for the rest of everything.”

“I can’t tell you what’s in it,” he said when asked for more specifics about those capabilities. “But it’s real and it’s deliverable.”

Though Taiwan’s immediate operational requirements could be more limited,

It is also worth noting here that 1,000 loitering munitions are a relatively smaller number in the broader context of a future high-end conflict where friendly forces will have to prosecute tens of thousands of targets. In talking about the Hellscape plan last year, Aquilino had explicitly said “here’s a metric for me: 1,000 targets for 24 hours.”

Those targets will include a growing array of Chinese uncrewed platforms in the air, as well as on the ground and at sea. The PLA has been making its own substantial investments in loitering munitions and swarming technologies in recent years.

A rendering of a notional drone swarm overlaid on top of a map of Taiwan. The War Zone/USAF/CDC

So, not just developing, but actually being able to acquire and field very large numbers of loitering munitions and other capabilities in a timely and cost-effective manner will be critical to enabling concepts of operations like Hellscape. This is something the U.S. military is contending with now and is trying to shift the paradigm on through initiatives like Replicator, which has a goal of helping to get thousands of new low-cost aerial drones and other uncrewed platforms with high degrees of autonomy into the hands of U.S. forces in the next two years. A U.S. Army effort to buy Switchblade 600 kamikaze drones, a larger cousin to the Switchblade 300, is among the first tranche of programs to get special attention through Replicator.

Altogether, the potential sales of Switchblade 300s and ALTIUS 600Ms to Taiwan are clear reflections of broader trends globally and the kamikaze drones could be important contributors in creating a ‘hellscape’ to protect the island from a future Chinese invasion.

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