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In depth: US and China’s complex arms race over Taiwan

28th June 2024 - 14:02 GMT | by ​Neil Thompson in London


Long-range unmanned surface vessels (LRUSVs) transit the Pacific Ocean during the Integrated Battle Problem (IBP) 24.1 in March 2024. (Photo: Ian Delossantos/US Navy)

The US and China have been engaging in a complex game of mutual deterrence over Taiwan in a race that features a bewildering range of different equipment.


  1. China prepares for 2027
  2. US launches Replicator programme
  3. US and Taiwan accelerate drone deployments
  4. After the swarms
  5. China claims it can counter US drone swarms and conventional units
  6. China’s hybrid warfare assets

China prepares for 2027

China’s President Xi Jinping has tasked the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) with developing the capability to be able to invade the self-ruled island of Taiwan by 2027, according to Admiral John Aquilino, head of the US Indo-Pacific Command (USINDOPACOM).

Speaking to press in April 2024, Aquilino said China had continued a military build-up and increased air and sea intrusions into Taiwanese-controlled airspace and waters. In February, for example, the Chinese coastguard intercepted and boarded a Taiwanese tourist boat in the waters around Taiwan’s Kinmen islands. Taiwan’s defence ministry frequently tracks PLA aircraft and PLA Navy (PLAN) ships operating around Taiwan.

“Despite a failing economy, there is a conscious decision to fund military capability,” Aquilino said, warning that he expected Chinese military spending to continue despite the country’s growing economic problems.

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Ready for the race: Air separation drone swarms vs. air defence systems

US launches Replicator programme

US officials have said Xi’s 2027 deadline was not a timeline for the PLA to actually invade Taiwan, but instead a deadline for it to achieve the military capabilities to be able to do so. In response, its forces have focused heavily on developing a US and Taiwanese unmanned vehicle capability to deter China.

The plan consists of fleets of unmanned surface vehicles (USVs), unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs) and aerial drones to saturate the Taiwan Strait for a month, until conventional allied forces can arrive in the area to fight China’s invasion fleet. In March, the US Department of Defense announced US$1 billion in funding for the Replicator programme, an initiative to design and build swarms of loitering munitions, aerial drones and USVs. The swarms would find threats autonomously but still function with a ‘human in the loop’ standard, meaning a person would still make the decision to attack a target. Texas-based start-up Saronic Technologies has designed two autonomous USVs, the Cutlass and Spyglass classes, for the Replicator program.

Threat System Management Office drone testing
The Threat System Management Office unboxing and testing drones to be used during Marne Focus 2024 at Fort Stewart, Georgia. (Photo: Staff Sgt. Jacob Slaymaker/US Army)

The Cutlass-class USV can integrate with an Anduril ALTIUS loitering munition, allowing the latter to extend its launch capabilities. Meanwhile, the Spyglass can “detect and track a vessel during night-time intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance operation”, according to Saronic Technologies, which demonstrated both USV models at the US Navy’s Integrated Battle Problem (IBP) 24.1 exercise in March.

“Navy operators were able to control multiple Spyglass ASVs from a single user interface utilizing beyond line-of-sight communications,” the firm said. Meanwhile, defence contractor Anduril provided the primary software system – Lattice – that meshed the different aerial, surface and subsea drone units together during the IBP exercise earlier this year.

US and Taiwan accelerate drone deployments

Along with experimenting with new capabilities, the US Navy has begun to take delivery of maritime drone systems it ordered development of earlier. In December 2023, it received six Orca Extra Large Uncrewed Undersea Vehicles (XLUUVs) from Boeing for testing.

The Orca measures nearly 16 metres in length and is being developed for use in a variety of roles, including anti-surface warfare, anti-submarine warfare, electronic warfare, strike missions and countermine missions. It has a range of 6,000 nautical miles and can be launched and recovered without the need for a specialist support ship.

The first images of the Orca XLUUV with its payload attached surfaced on LinkedIn in mid-June, revealing the full scale of the autonomous drone for the first time.

Boeing Orca UUV
Boring’s Orca has a range of 6,000 nautical miles and measures almost 16 metres in length. (Photo: Boeing)

Meanwhile, the US Defense Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA) approved the sale of $360 million-worth of drones to Taiwan in two separate statements on June 18. The DSCA said the twin consignments would support US security needs in the Asia-Pacific “by supporting [Taiwan]’s continuing efforts to modernise its armed forces and to maintain a credible defensive capability”.

The sales will include 291 ALTIUS 600M-V drones from Anduril for $300 million, and 720 Switchblade 300 All Up Rounds drones from AeroVironment worth $62 million. The Switchblade kamikaze drones are used to destroy armoured targets while the ALTIUS 600M-V drones can conduct both reconnaissance and strike missions, depending on the situation.

After the swarms

Iain D. Boyd, director of the Center for National Security Initiatives at the University of Colorado, said that in the event of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan, early US drone attacks would be followed by attacks using conventional US high-end systems – including F15 and F35 jets – which would target key Chinese infrastructure that the Chinese would need to execute their A2/AD war plan.

Such targets would include command and control centres, communication networks, radars and missile launchers.

Boyd said: “The goal will be to disable China’s ability to execute an invasion of Taiwan. If the US strategy works, China will then be faced with the decision of whether to launch a large invasion force with much of its defensive capabilities disabled. They would run the risk of very high casualty rates if the US Navy and Air Force are able to operate freely.

“If China did proceed with a large invasion, the US and Allies would then be faced with their own decision of whether to respond in a way that would likely lead to high levels of casualties on both sides.”

China claims it can counter US drone swarms and conventional units

In the event of a conflict over Taiwan, Beijing has claimed China would be able to threaten US conventional and drone units with its own military capabilities.

Should the US deploy F35 and F15 jets using the US Navy’s aircraft carriers, for example, Boyd noted that Beijing has developed the Chinese DF-21 hypersonic missile (sometimes called ‘Carrier Killer’).

“[This missile] is challenging to defend against and could disable (rather than sink) a carrier by destroying the flight deck,” he explained. Both sides’ aircraft would also be operating in a battlespace where jets’ GPS systems would be degraded or rendered completely useless by electronic warfare systems.

Moreover, the Chinese have sought to gain a tactical advantage in conventional jet design and upgrade to their own next-generation jet engine to challenge the US Air Force’s renewed Adaptive Engine Transition Programme (AETP) for the F-35.

Switchblade 300 10C Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center
A Switchblade 300 10C system launched as part of Service Level Training Exercise 1-22 at Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center Twentynine Palms, California. (Photo: Cpl. Alexis Moradian/ US Marine Corps)

The new engine design relies on 3D printing technology to catch up with the generally more advanced US and comes from AECC Sichuan Gas Turbine Establishment based in western China. The firm has claimed to have designed a new 3D structure made of titanium alloy to go inside a turbofan jet engine, allegedly increasing engine efficiency and decreasing drag.

China has also claimed to possess the ability to counter various the maritime and aerial US drone designs mentioned earlier in the article. Chinese military analyst Fu Qianshao told the South China Morning Post on June 12 that US plans to field groups of USVs, UUVs and aerial drones were a product of declining US conventional shipbuilding capability, and that the US and China had a level playing field when it came to fielding fleets of automated drones.

Fu said: “[The] US should not forget that China has the world’s largest drone production capacity. We will also use a large number of aerial robots to deal with our opponents.

“The Americans should think about how to deal with a larger PLA drone fleet to counter them,” he remarked, pointing to electromagnetic interference and other PLA countermeasures as limiting factors in the success of any US reliance on autonomous drone units to delay a PLA attack on Taiwan.

China’s hybrid warfare assets

China would also be able to call on intelligence and civilian assets in the event of a conflict with the US over Taiwan. In February, the US Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) said that Chinese state-affiliated cyberthreat actors dubbed Volt Typhoon had gained access to US critical infrastructure and compromised it with malware. Then, in March, the CISA warned the heads of US critical infrastructure entities that Volt Typhoon had compromised sewage, water, energy, telecommunications and transport systems, which would be disrupted or destroyed in the event of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan, to delay a conventional US military response in-theatre from bases in places like Guam or from the US mainland itself.

China has also augmented its ability to invade Taiwan with the creation of nominally civilian forces that could augment its military capabilities in the event it needs to rapidly invade the island. China has long militarised law enforcement agencies like its coastguard, whose ships like the coastguard vessel 3901 outweigh some US naval ships in the Asia-Pacific region, displacing 12,000 imperial tons. Built in 2016, the 3901 was armed with two auxiliary guns, two anti-aircraft machine guns and 76 millimetre rapid fire guns capable of firing shells. In April Japan’s coastguard flagged a flotilla of Chinese coastguard vessels operating in Japanese waters armed with machine guns and an unspecified “autocannon”.

The US-based Center for Strategic and International Studies has speculated China will use militarised law enforcement vessels like its coastguard fleet to blockade Taiwan one day, in an attempt to subdue the island, while claiming to stop short of starting a military conflict.

China has also created a large civilian fleet of roll-on/roll-off (RO/RO) ferries capable of transporting significant amounts of both vehicles and people within warzones. The PLAN currently lacks a significant fleet of amphibious assault vessels, being known to possess just eight Type 071 amphibious transport dock ships; six Zubr-Class amphibious assault hovercraft; three Type 075 landing helicopter dock ships; 15 Yuyi-Class hovercraft vessels; and about 50 small landing ships. 

China’s creation of a large civilian RO/RO would allow the PLAN to offset this if it were able to capture Taiwanese port facilities during an invasion. The PLAN has demonstrated the use of civilian ferries like the 15,560-ton RO-RO ferry Bang Chui Dao using modified ramps during military exercises, including one in 2019.

​Zubr (Project 1232)

Yuzhao Class (Type 071)

Type 726

​Neil Thompson


​Neil Thompson

Neil Thompson works freelance for Shephard and other defence publishers, but is currently employed as …

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