U.S. Approves $360 Million Arms Sale to Taiwan: Kamikaze Drones to Bolster Defense Against China

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The U.S. government has recently approved a significant potential arms sale to Taiwan, involving over a thousand loitering munitions, commonly known as kamikaze drones. This sale includes a combination of Switchblade 300 and ALTIUS 600M drones, both of which have been combat-tested in Ukraine. This move is expected to considerably enhance Taiwan’s defensive capabilities, providing them with a robust means to counter potential Chinese aggression in the Taiwan Strait.

These drones, being relatively affordable yet highly effective, could significantly bolster Taiwan’s ability to target Chinese military forces in any future conflict. Specifically, the loitering munitions could be used against warships and incoming landing craft during an amphibious invasion. Moreover, the ALTIUS 600 drones could deploy mesh sensor networks over extensive areas of the strait, greatly improving the targeting precision of other Taiwanese weaponry and enhancing overall situational awareness.

The potential sale follows renewed discussions about a covert U.S.-led plan aimed at defending Taiwan from a mainland invasion. This plan involves deploying swarms of unmanned aerial systems, boats, and underwater vehicles to transform the airspace and waters surrounding Taiwan into a highly contested and hazardous zone for invaders.

Taiwanese military forces are already well-prepared for coastal defense scenarios, regularly training with anti-tank guided missiles and other weapons to combat enemy landing craft and amphibious armored vehicles. The addition of loitering munitions would extend their offensive reach and provide more indirect attack options. These drones could also be employed to engage enemy forces during ground battles on the island itself. The ALTIUS 600Ms, with their longer range, could overwhelm defenses and disable larger surface vessels by targeting critical systems such as radars and communications arrays, rendering them ineffective in combat. Additionally, Taiwanese forces stationed on outlying islands in the Taiwan Strait could use these drones for harassment attacks on mainland coastal areas. For example, Kinmen County, located just under 10 miles from the Chinese mainland, could serve as a strategic launch point for these operations.

The dual capability of Switchblade 300 and ALTIUS 600M drones for surveillance and reconnaissance further enhances their utility. The ALTIUS 600M, in particular, is highly effective in this role. These drones can operate individually or as part of a networked swarm, aiding in target identification and improving situational awareness. Large mesh network swarms could provide significant synergistic benefits, especially in terms of targeting and monitoring enemy movements. This capability would also complicate the enemy’s efforts to conceal their activities. Although this feature may not be included in the initial order, it likely represents Taiwan’s strategic direction for the future.

The U.S. Defense Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA) announced the State Department’s approval of the potential sales to Taiwan. While the U.S. does not formally recognize Taiwan as an independent nation, it maintains the right to sell arms to and collaborate with Taiwanese authorities. Consequently, the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office in the United States (TERCO), which acts as Taiwan’s unofficial embassy in the U.S., is designated as the purchaser of the kamikaze drones.

The proposed Switchblade 300 deal, valued at $60.2 million, includes 720 Switchblade 300 All Up Rounds (AURs), which incorporate 35 fly-to-buy AURs, and 101 Switchblade fire control systems. These drones will feature anti-personnel and anti-armor capabilities. The package also includes first-line spare parts, operator manuals, training for operators and maintenance personnel, logistical support, lot acceptance testing, U.S. government technical assistance, engineering services, program management, site surveys, and other related logistics and program support elements.

The proposed sale of ALTIUS 600Ms is estimated at $300 million. This package comprises up to 291 ALTIUS 600M-V systems, including UAV loitering munitions with extensible warheads and electro-optical/infrared cameras, inert training UAVs, pneumatic integrated launch systems (PILS), transport trailers, ground control systems, spares, battery chargers, training, technical manuals, logistical support, testing, technical assistance both within and outside the continental U.S., program management, site surveys, facility evaluations, quality assurance, de-processing team support, and transportation.

This approval marks the first mention of the ALTIUS 600M-V, and it remains unclear how it differs from the baseline 600M. The War Zone has reached out to the prime contractor, Anduril, for additional details. According to DSCA, the implementation of this proposed sale would require the assignment of five U.S. government and twelve contractor representatives for up to two years to support equipment fielding, training, and program management.

It’s important to note that these are still potential sales, and if Taiwanese authorities proceed with the purchases, the contents and costs of the packages could undergo significant changes before formal contracts are finalized.

The Switchblade 300 and ALTIUS 600M represent two distinct categories of loitering munitions. The Switchblade 300 is a lightweight, portable system that can be launched from a self-contained tube and operated by a single individual using a handheld controller. It can also be deployed from multi-round launchers mounted on vehicles or boats. Each loitering munition carries a warhead comparable in size to a 40mm grenade.

Due to its compact size, the Switchblade 300 has a relatively short range and endurance. The baseline version can reach up to six miles (10 kilometers), while newer versions can extend this range to nearly 19 miles (30 kilometers). Its total flight endurance ranges from 15 to 20 minutes, depending on the configuration. The Switchblade 300 is a highly automated system, designed for ease of use and rapid deployment.

In contrast, the ALTIUS 600M is a larger and more capable loitering munition with extended range and endurance. The baseline ALTIUS 600 drone, from which the 600M is derived, can weigh up to 27 pounds and has a maximum range of 276 miles (approximately 440 kilometers), with an endurance of at least four hours. The 600M variant likely trades some range and performance for increased destructive capabilities but still offers significantly greater reach and endurance than the Switchblade 300.

The ALTIUS 600Ms intended for Taiwan appear to be designed for launch from trailer-mounted tubes, which can be mounted on various vehicles, including trucks and helicopters, enhancing their mobility and deployment flexibility.

These potential sales underscore the growing importance of loitering munitions and other unmanned systems in modern warfare. The conflict in Ukraine has demonstrated their effectiveness and brought these technologies into the spotlight. Taiwan has already been developing domestic loitering munitions and unmanned platforms, as highlighted by a 2023 video from Taiwan’s National Chung-Shan Institute of Science and Technology (NCSIST), showcasing various indigenous drone developments, including the Chien Hsiang loitering munition.

The United States has long advocated for Taiwan to adopt more low-cost loitering munitions and drones as part of a broader asymmetric defense strategy, often referred to as the “porcupine strategy.” Wargames and simulations, including those conducted by the U.S. military, have consistently shown that swarms of inexpensive, networked drones with high levels of autonomy could have a transformative impact on any future conflict over Taiwan.

Within the Pentagon, concepts for leveraging large numbers of unmanned systems in the defense of Taiwan have evolved over the past decade into a strategy known as Hellscape. These operational concepts are designed to exploit the asymmetric advantages of unmanned capabilities, providing a significant edge in the Pacific theater.

Image : Taiwan – Kamikaze drone – @copyright debuglies.com

At a 2023 conference hosted by the National Defense Industry Association (NDIA), then-head of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command (INDOPACOM) Admiral John Aquilino discussed the potential of unmanned capabilities to provide a substantial advantage in the region. His successor, Admiral Samuel Paparo, also emphasized the importance of preparing for a potential conflict over Taiwan, stressing the need for the U.S. military and its allies to be ready to prevail in such a scenario.

U.S. and Taiwanese officials have repeatedly warned that China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) could be capable of launching a successful armed intervention against Taiwan by 2027, if not sooner. The Shangri-La Dialogue, an annual forum for defense and security discussions in the Asia-Pacific region, has seen significant attention given to this issue. U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, Chinese Minister of Defense Wei Fenghe, and Admiral Paparo were among the key speakers at the 2023 event, which highlighted the strategic importance of the Taiwan Strait.

Admiral Paparo’s comments at the Shangri-La Dialogue underscored the U.S. commitment to turning the Taiwan Strait into a heavily contested zone in the event of a conflict. He spoke of utilizing classified capabilities to create an “unmanned hellscape” that would significantly hinder Chinese military operations and buy time for allied forces to respond.

The potential sale of 1,000 loitering munitions to Taiwan, while significant, is just one element of a broader strategy to prepare for a high-end conflict. Admiral Aquilino had previously stated that in a high-intensity conflict, U.S. forces might need to target up to 1,000 enemy assets every 24 hours. This underscores the scale of the challenge and the importance of acquiring and fielding large numbers of unmanned systems quickly and cost-effectively.

The PLA has also been investing heavily in loitering munitions and swarming technologies, recognizing their potential to change the dynamics of future conflicts. As a result, Taiwan’s acquisition of these capabilities is crucial to maintaining a balance of power and deterring Chinese aggression.

The U.S. military is actively working to develop and deploy large volumes of low-cost, highly autonomous drones through initiatives like Replicator. This program aims to equip U.S. forces with thousands of new aerial drones and other unmanned platforms within the next two years. One of the initial projects under Replicator includes the U.S. Army’s effort to procure Switchblade 600 drones, a larger version of the Switchblade 300.

In summary, the potential sales of Switchblade 300 and ALTIUS 600M loitering munitions to Taiwan reflect broader global trends in military technology and strategy. These drones could play a crucial role in creating a highly contested environment to defend the island from a potential Chinese invasion, enhancing Taiwan’s asymmetric defense capabilities and contributing to a comprehensive deterrence strategy.


APPENDIX 1 – Detailed Information on Switchblade 300 and ALTIUS 600M Loitering Munitions

Switchblade 300

Overview: The Switchblade 300 is a miniature loitering munition developed by AeroVironment, designed for precision strikes against beyond-line-of-sight (BLOS) targets. It is backpackable, rapidly deployable, and can be used from mobile or fixed defensive positions. The system provides real-time video and GPS coordinates, making it highly effective for targeting and reconnaissance missions.

Switchblade® 300 Block 20 Technical Data Overview

The Switchblade® 300 Block 20 is an advanced loitering munition system developed by AeroVironment, designed to provide precision strike capabilities with enhanced operational features. Here is a comprehensive overview of its technical specifications and capabilities:

Technical Specifications

Range:

  • 30 km with Extended Range Antenna

Endurance:

  • Over 20 minutes

Weight:

  • Munition: 3.69 lb (1.68 kg)
  • All-Up-Round (AUR): 7.2 lb (3.27 kg)

Speed:

  • Loiter Speed: 63 mph (101 km/h)
  • Sprint Speed: 100 mph (161 km/h)

Fire Control System (FCS):

  • Tablet-based with Tap-to-Target guidance, built-in mission planner, and training simulator
  • Interoperable with Switchblade 600 FCU

Targeting Optics:

  • Enhanced EO/IR with forward to left-hand panning camera suite

Operating Altitude:

  • Below 500 ft (152.4 m) AGL
  • Supports operation above 15,000 ft (4572 m) ASL

Launch Method:

  • Self-contained launcher suitable for ground, air, and maritime deployment
  • Configurable multipack capability

Lethality:

  • Anti-personnel effects with precision strike and low collateral effects

Tactical Load-Out:

  • AUR: 8 lb, fits inside a rucksack (includes payload, launcher, and transport bag)

Key Features

  • Backpackable Design: Lightweight with multiple AUR load-outs.
  • Enhanced Data Link: Improved frequency hopping Digital Data Link (DDL) supporting AES-256-bit encryption.
  • Advanced Munition: Multiple commit angles, user-selectable point of detonation, and continuous Positive Identification (PID).
  • Rapid Deployment: One-person operation with deployment capability in less than 2 minutes.
  • Wave-Off and Recommit Capabilities: Patented features allowing the operator to wave-off and recommit to targets.

Recent Developments: The Switchblade 300 Block 20 introduces significant improvements, including longer endurance, enhanced digital data link range, and upgraded camera systems. It also features a new tablet-based FCS for easier mission planning and execution.

ALTIUS 600M

Overview: The ALTIUS 600M is a larger loitering munition designed for long-range operations. It is part of the ALTIUS family developed by Anduril Industries, offering extended range and endurance with advanced swarming capabilities. The system is designed to target a wide range of threats, from small ground units to larger surface vessels.

Technical Specifications:

  • Weight: Up to 27 pounds (baseline ALTIUS 600), likely optimized for destructive capabilities in the 600M variant
  • Range: 276 miles (approximately 440 km)
  • Endurance: At least 4 hours
  • Warhead: Extensible, designed for higher destructive power
  • Launch System: Pneumatic Integrated Launch Systems (PILS), trailer-mounted for mobility, can also be launched from helicopters and ground vehicles
  • Control System: Ground control systems, networked for swarming operations
  • Features: High precision, capable of autonomous operation, resilient mesh sensor networks for enhanced situational awareness

Operational Use: The ALTIUS 600M can be deployed to create resilient sensor networks over large areas, drastically improving targeting efficiency and overall situational awareness. It is effective against larger targets further away from the frontline, capable of overwhelming defenses and targeting critical systems like radars and communications arrays.

Summary of Capabilities

The integration of these loitering munitions into Taiwan’s defense strategy significantly enhances their capacity to counter potential Chinese aggression. The Switchblade 300 offers quick deployment and high precision for close-range targets, while the ALTIUS 600M provides long-range capabilities and advanced swarming technology. Together, they create a formidable defense network capable of responding to various threats across the Taiwan Strait.

Scheme Table

FeatureSwitchblade 300ALTIUS 600M
Weight2.7 kgUp to 27 pounds
Length610 mm
RangeUp to 19 km440 km
Endurance15-20 minutesAt least 4 hours
Warhead40mm grenade equivalentExtensible, higher destructive power
Launch SystemTube-launchedPILS, trailer-mounted
Control SystemHandheld, tablet-based FCSGround control systems
FeaturesQuiet motor, high-res EO/IR camerasSwarming capabilities, resilient mesh sensor networks
Deployment PlatformsLand, sea, mobile platformsHelicopters, ground vehicles
Special CapabilitiesWave-off, PIDHigh precision, autonomous operation

These advanced loitering munitions provide Taiwan with a versatile and powerful means to enhance their defensive posture against potential threats. The Switchblade 300’s rapid deployment and precision strike capabilities, combined with the ALTIUS 600M’s long-range and swarming capabilities, create a comprehensive and flexible defense strategy tailored to counter various scenarios.


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