The massive military exercises that China launched over the past year in response to the meetings between Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen and U.S. Speakers of the House Nancy Pelosi and Kevin McCarthy demonstrated that the military balance of power in the Taiwan Strait is trending steadily towards Beijing.
The growing quantitative gap between the Taiwanese military and the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) makes competing symmetrically an increasingly difficult task.
Instead, Taipei should seek to deter Beijing asymmetrically by becoming a “porcupine”— an animal that defends itself by inflicting such grievous wounds on the predator that hunting it is not worth the cost. The quills of this porcupine should include cheap and numerous one-way attack drones, similar to the Iranian-made Shahed-136 drones that have seen success in conflicts in the Middle East and Europe.
Both state and non-state actors wrote the playbook on how to use drones against more powerful adversaries over the last decade. Early adopters included ISIS, Iran, Iranian-backed groups like the Houthis, Hamas, Hezbollah and various militia groups in Iraq and Syria.
These groups frequently use drones to attack their targets, including a March 2023 attack that killed a U.S. contractor and wounded five servicemembers. Conventional militaries have increasingly adopted these tactics, as seen in Iran’s use of one-way attack drones during the Abqaiq-Khurais attacks on Saudi oil infrastructure in 2019 and Azerbaijan’s heavy use of Israeli-made drones to help win a clear victory over Armenia in the 2020 Second Nagorno-Karabakh war.
While these drones have been a persistent threat in the Middle East, the first major war in which both sides have used one-way attack drones (also called suicide or kamikaze drones) for strikes at scale is currently underway in Ukraine. Both sides have seen considerable success in using these weapons to strike targets at the front and behind the lines.
The Russian military has used Iranian-made Shahed-131/-136 drones in conjunction with its remaining missile arsenal to nearly run the Ukrainian military out of air defense interceptors while significantly damaging Ukraine’s electrical grid and critical infrastructure. Russia has also used its domestically produced Lancet and KUB-BLA loitering munitions to target Ukrainian tanks, artillery, radars, air defense systems and ships.
Ukraine, largely bereft of long-range strike capabilities, has used one-way attack drones to destroy or damage Russian aircraft, power stations, and petrochemical facilities. Ukraine’s grenade-dropping quadcopters have also eliminated hundreds of Russian ground vehicles while showcasing heavy Russian losses to the world.
Much like the introduction of tanks or airplanes to the battlefield, one-way attack drones, loitering munitions, and quadcopters are disruptive technologies that will permanently change how wars are fought. Their advent allows everyone from non-state actors to great powers to have deep strike, air interdiction, and close air support capabilities.
The low cost of drones relative to aircraft and high-end missiles allows for these systems to be procured in far greater numbers, and mass has a quality of its own. These characteristics make small drones ideal for smaller groups or countries seeking to deter a larger adversary with limited resources — precisely what Taiwan needs to do.
The unfortunate reality is that Taiwan does not have the resources to field a military that can match the PLA system for system. The solution to this problem isn’t buying more expensive and scarce naval vessels and fighter aircraft, it’s a shift towards cheaper and more survivable asymmetric forces. To be a relevant capability, these drones must be cheap enough to be available in mass as well as mobile and easily dispersible to present a survivable counterforce even if Taiwan loses its ships and jets.
In the face of an invasion, Taiwan could use long-range one-way attack drones to strike against the Chinese mainland, targeting staging facilities, airbases, ships in port, and fuel depots. These systems could provide Taiwan with disruptive effects by overwhelming defenses and increasing lethality by striking in conjunction with high-end systems, such as SLAM-ER cruise missiles and Harpoon anti-ship missiles.
Since a Shahed-136 reportedly costs around $20,000, while a missile like SLAM-ER costs roughly $500,000, Taiwan can still manufacture or purchase large quantities of them on a relatively small budget. Hundreds of drones and missiles arriving within minutes of each other would overwhelm air defense systems and even the small warheads carried by drones could cause significant damage to soft targets like fuel and ammunition depots, parked planes, or electrical infrastructure. The disruptions and delays caused by these attacks could prove critical to preventing a successful PLA amphibious landing, which would require thousands of systems to operate together on tight timetables.
Shorter-range systems like the Switchblade-600 or Lancet could strike Chinese landing ships as they approach the shore — Russian forces have already demonstrated proof of concept by using Lancets to strike Ukrainian gunboats. And if PLA forces do gain a foothold, small drones, like the Switchblade-300 or quadcopters, can help push the invaders back into the sea or at least enable a prolonged defense by targeting and harassing Chinese positions and troops. The war in Ukraine has shown that tens of thousands of these systems will be needed; Taipei should apply that lesson and not skimp on the quantities procured.
Taiwan should seek to procure or develop one-way attack drones by prioritizing open architecture, simple designs, and modular capabilities to keep cost and complexity down. Allowing the same basic drone to use control kits to either follow GPS waypoints, use home-on-jam/anti-radiation seekers, virtual reality controls, or even autonomous strike capabilities cued by image recognition software would give Taiwan a flexible drone force capable of inflicting severe damage on PLA forces.
The good news is that Taiwan has already developed at least one drone well-suited to this mission — the Chien Hsiang loitering munition, which homes in on enemy radars. The bad news is that the Taiwanese have reportedly ordered only 104 Chien Hsiangs. Taipei needs at least an order of magnitude more anti-radiation loitering munitions and thousands more drones of various types to be an influential force in the face of any Chinese aggression.
The time is now for Taiwan to embrace the asymmetric drone playbook and shift focus away from procuring mostly low-density, expensive systems, such as ships and aircraft, to acquiring asymmetric capabilities starting with one-way attack drones, loitering munitions, and other small drones. Taipei needs to become a porcupine quickly and drones are the quills it needs.
Ryan Brobst is a senior research analyst at the Center on Military and Political Power at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, where Lt. Col. James Hesson is a visiting military analyst. The views expressed do not necessarily represent those of the U.S. Air Force or the Department of Defense.