Taiwan's Ministry of Defense has offered a rare look at one of its Chien Hsiang loitering munitions swooping down on a target during a test.
Authorities on the island rightfully state that the value of uncrewed aerial systems, especially ones that can offer asymmetric capabilities, has been underscored by the current conflict in Ukraine. For Taiwan, relatively low-cost loitering munitions, also often called kamikaze drones, would offer very valuable additional capacity to strike Chinese forces during any future major conflict across Taiwan Strait.
The clip showing the Chien Hsiang loitering munition going through the motions of a strike on a mock target was included in a larger video segment that Taiwan's Military News Agency put out yesterday. The Military News Agency is the official media outlet of the Taiwanese Ministry of Defense.
The full video, seen below, covers various drone developments from the National Chung-Shan Institute of Science and Technology (NCSIST), a top Taiwanese military organization charged with carrying out advanced research and development and test and evaluation work.
The Chien Hsiang portion of the video below starts at around 5:02 in the runtime.
The Chien Hsiang, which was first seen publicly in 2017, is a delta wing drone with a single gas engine driving a pusher propeller at the rear. The new video clip shows pairs of pop-out antennas deploying on top and below the drone after launch, which are features that have been seen on newer iterations of the core design.
To date, all variants of the Chien Hsiang have generally been described as being able to home in on a target's radiofrequency emissions and being primarily intended to target enemy radars. NCSIST has said in the past that it has a maximum endurance of five hours and the ability to strike targets up to 621 miles (1,000 kilometers) away, making it truly a very long-range suppression/destruction of enemy air defenses (SEAD/DEAD) weapon.
Previously released information about the Chien Hsiang has made clear it does not need an operator in the loop to carry out a strike. It can be preset to fly to a specific location and then autonomously search for target emissions. This also allows the drone to re-engage a threat that might have stopped emitting temporarily. The onboard autopilot would also allow Chien Hsiangs to attack specific coordinates without homing in on any emissions.
The new video from Taiwan's Military News Agency does includes clips from a point-of-view feed from a camera mounted on the Chien Hsiang. However, it's not clear if the reflects a camera fitted temporarily for testing purposes or ones purpose-built into drone.
As can be seen in the Military News Agency video, multiple Chien Hsiang variants have what appear to be cameras with fixed forward fields of view under their fuselages. This could offer a way to help confirm the drone had hit the desired target if some type of connectivity was available, such as on shorter-ranged missions or when an airborne relay is available.
There is also a version of the Chien Hsiang with a gimbaled camera turret in its nose. This version could have an operator-in-the-loop configuration. This could allow for operators to hunt for and prosecute dynamic targets like vehicles and groups of personnel. By it's vary nature it would have a reconnaissance capability, as well. It could also still possess a anti-radiation ability too, but with a different seeker arrangement.
The use of any cameras on variants of the Chien Hsiangs as part of an operator-in-the-loop control scheme would, of course, have the aforementioned constraints on control range and line-of-sight limitations of the required communications links.
Regardless of the exact means of employment, the primary way Chien Hsiangs are deployed is from a 12-cell trailer-mounted launch system. This offers additional flexibility and the ability to employ them in a shoot-and-scoot manner that reduces vulnerability to the launch team. The road-mobile trailers could also be concealed inside Taiwan's network of hardened underground facilities. Reports in the past have indicated that Taiwan has static ground-based and shipboard launchers, as well.
Though there is no confirmed link between the two designs, the Chien Hsiang is extremely similar in both form and function to Israel’s IAI Harpy. Israeli companies have been pioneers in the loitering munition space for years now and Harpy was the most notable and successful example of such a weapon, as you can read more about in this past War Zone feature. Since the introduction of Harpy, IAI, specifically, has since achieved even greater success in this field with more advanced outgrowths of this concept, including a newer design called Harop. Harop expands beyond the Harpy's SEAD/DEAD mission set, and features the ability for man-in-the-loop control and reconnaissance much like the follow-on camera-laden variant of the Chien Hsiang.
Azerbaijan's heavy use of Harops in its defeat of Armenian forces in a conflict between the two countries in 2020 was a major contributor to a surge in global interest in kamikaze drones in recent years.
More recently, "the Russo-Ukraine War made people see the multi-faceted use of drones on the battlefield and fully demonstrated the essence of asymmetric warfare," a machine translation of the official description of the Military News Agency video notes.
Of course, Taiwanese work on various types of drones, including the Chien Hsiang, predates Russia's all-out invasion of Ukraine last year. However, Ukraine's effective use of uncrewed aerial systems, including weaponized commercial drones, to help in its operations against numerically superior Russian forces has clearly had an impact on officials in Taipei. This includes Taiwan's establishment of a public-private Drone National Team initiative that is seeking to fast-track the introduction of new uncrewed capabilities into the island's armed forces.
“In Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the entire world saw the importance of drones," the office of Taiwan's President Tsai Ing Wen told Reuters in a statement earlier this year. “For future generations, drones will play a very important role in both civilian and military applications."
“For a country with advanced industries, Taiwan cannot be absent," the statement from Tsai's office added.
Russian forces have also been making significant use of uncrewed aerial systems, including Iranian-designed delta wing kamikaze drones that are more directly relevant to Taiwan's Chien Hsiang. Russia is now moving to produce derivatives of Iran's Shahed-136 domestically.
Other delta wing kamikaze drones, including ones that look to have been inspired by Harpy, if they are not direct copies of the Israel design, have been steadily emerging elsewhere around the world, too. Chinese companies have been among those now producing Harpy clones and other similar designs.
For Taiwan, loitering munitions like the Chien Hsiang could be especially critical to a so-called "porcupine strategy" centered on increasing the depth of defenses on the island to impose major costs for China's People's Liberation Army (PLA) during any future military intervention. Kamikaze drones inherently offer relatively low-cost precision strike options that then be employed in sufficiently large numbers that give them the ability to overwhelm opponents.
In the war between Azerbaijan and Armenia in 2020 and now in the conflict in Ukraine, loitering munitions have demonstrated particular value for targeting high-priority individual targets, including radars and other components of air defense systems, heavy artillery pieces, and tanks and other armored vehicles. The drones are typically far cheaper than what they destroy.
“One small drone could blow up a tank that is worth tens of millions,” Hawk Yang, the head of research and development for Taiwanese drone maker Thunder Tiger, one of the companies now taking part in the Drone National Team initiative, told Reuters earlier this year.
In addition, though these munitions are typically too small to outright destroy larger weapon systems, like warships, they can still be used to achieve mission kills by targeting key systems like radars and other sensors and communications arrays. There has been talk about the potential for Chien Hsiang variants with larger warheads that would be better optimized for attacking larger threats like ships.
The Harop promotional video below from Israel's IAI shows hows loitering munitions like Taiwan's Chien Hsiang could be employed against different kinds of maritime targets.
NCSIST has said in the past that Chien Hsiang can be configured simply as a decoy to confuse enemy air defenses. This also dates back to the Harpy, which most these designs originate from even if just in emulation. Using them as decoys to stimulate and draw out air defenses and then kill those air defenses by on homing in on their radar emissions, is a core tactic to this weapons concept.
These realities have not been lost on the mainland, either. The PLA is also pushing forward with the adoption of its own extensive loitering munition capabilities, including types able to operate cooperatively in fully-networked swarms.
Wargaming conducted under the auspices of the U.S. military, as well as by independent think tanks in the United States, has consistently shown that drone swarms could be a decisive factor in any future conflict involving Taiwan.
All of this comes at a time when concerns are growing about the potential for a Chinese military intervention against Taiwan before the end of the decade, if not sooner. U.S. officials have said on multiple occasions now that the PLA could feel confident in its chances of succeeding in such an operation by around 2027. The government in Beijing routinely threatens to use military force if authorities in Taipei move to formally declare independence.
The image of a Chien Hsiang diving onto a target in the new video from Military News Agency underscores how the Taiwanese military's drone capabilities, which could be critical in a future conflict with China, are already growing.
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