Countering China: US Needs to Invest in Cheaper Long-Range Drones

Foreign Affairs

Washington: In order to counter a Chinese invasion of Taiwan, the US military needs to buy a diverse fleet of uncrewed aircraft that spans the gamut from sophisticated long range stealth aircraft to cheap commercial drones, says a new report from the Centre for a New American Security.


But greater US investments in drone technologies won’t be enough to erode China’s advantages, the authors of the report warn, adding that Taiwan needs to also invest heavily in its own fleet of uncrewed capabilities.

“Today, China is positioned to take advantage of its large fleet of drones, which could provide it with an edge in a war over Taiwan,” the report states. “The United States and Taiwan need to close this gap rapidly and develop a layered system of counterdrone defences or risk being on the losing side of a war.”

The challenge for a Taiwan scenario is that China has more drones than the United States, can manufacture military drones at lower costs, and can easily bolster its fleet with a large number of cheap small drones from its commercial industrial base, the report states. Further, the US forces would face a geographic predicament that China does not: how to successfully deploy and operate drones in Taiwan from bases hundreds of miles away, and from 6,000 miles away from the continental United States.

“I don’t know if it’s going to be a fair fight,” said Stacie Pettyjohn, director of CNAS’s defence program and one of the authors of the report. “There are a lot of things that are stacked up against the United States when it’s playing an away game, like it would be in a Taiwan scenario. But I think the US can do a lot of things to level the playing field somewhat.”

big bang

The report lays out a list of recommendations for both the US military and Taiwan.

For the US, those recommendations include prioritising the development of “good enough” long-range drones that are cheaply priced to be acquired and replaced in mass quantities. That’s sharp reversal for the Defence Department, whose current suite of long- and medium-range drones are expensive, exquisite assets like the RQ-4 Global Hawk and MQ-9 Reaper — two in-demand platforms that could provide valuable tracking and strike capabilities against China but would likely be shot down over time.


“The United States’ current slate of drones does not suit a China fight,” the report states. “The DoD must develop and procure drones with the range to perform useful missions in this theatre that can be purchased in sufficient quantities to make up for the many that will inevitably be lost in combat.”

In addition, the report recommends investments in autonomous kamikaze drones that can attack Chinese ships as well as layered defensive systems that can counter Chinese drones. It also suggests the United States create a rigorous program for training drone pilots and hammer out operational concepts and tactics for using drones in the Indo-Pacific.