Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), or drones, have become synonymous with modern warfare. During the early phases of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the latter’s Turkish-made Bayraktar TB2s made international headlines by destroying scores of Russian tanks, armored vehicles, and air-defense systems with seeming impunity. TB2s also participated in some of the war’s most daring operations, such as the recapture of Snake Island and the sinking of the Russian Black Sea Fleet’s flagship, Moskva. More importantly, perhaps, Ukraine successfully utilized the Bayraktar’s grayscale targeting turret imagery as an effective propaganda tool.
Recently, Chinese drones also made headlines by circumnavigating Taiwan twice in one week. In this article we take a closer look at People’s Liberation Army (PLA) drone operations near Taiwan.
We noted previously in The Diplomat that the first acknowledged deployment of a drone by the PLA occurred on September 5, 2022, when Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense (MND) released the flight path of a PLA BZK-007 reconnaissance UAV. That drone was part of a larger nine-sortie incursion into Taiwan’s southwestern ADIZ. Since then, the PLA’s sizable portfolio of drones have become a regular fixture in incursions into the island’s ADIZ, averaging 16 sorties per month. What garnered attention most recently, however, were two PLA UAV sorties within the space of a week that circumnavigated Taiwan.
According to the MND’s daily ADIZ report, on April 27 a TB-001 medium-altitude and long endurance (MALE) UAV conducted a counter-clockwise (south to north) circumnavigation of Taiwan. The TB-001 crossed the Median Line and entered Taiwan’s southwestern ADIZ, passing through the Bashi Channel before flying up along the island’s eastern coast and returning to the mainland via the northeastern end of the Median Line. The TB-001 was accompanied by another UAV, a BZK-005 that entered the southeastern ADIZ and flew halfway to the eastern side of the island before turning back. The TB-001’s circumnavigation flight occurred as part of a 19-sortie incursion that saw PLA fighters (J-10s) and fighter-bombers (Su-30s and J-16s) cross the Median Line while a KQ-200 anti-submarine warfare maritime patrol aircraft (ASW-MPA) and Y-8 RECCE entered the Bashi Channel.
On May 2, Japan’s Joint Staff reported that the Japan Air Self-Defense Force (JASDF) had scrambled fighters to intercept what was purportedly a PLA UAV flying between Yonaguni Island and Taiwan. The Joint Staff also released its tracking of the drone’s flightpath off the eastern coast of Taiwan. On May 3, Taiwan’s MND confirmed that a PLA UAV had conducted a circumnavigation sortie around Taiwan the day before. The MND’s report showed that a BZK-005 crossed the Median Line north of Taiwan and flew in a clockwise direction around the island before passing through the Bashi Channel and re-crossing the Median Line at its southern end. The May 2 encircling flight was also part of a larger 13- sortie PLA incursion, with fighters (J-10s) and fighter-bombers (SU-30s and J-16s) again crossing the Median Line while a KQ-200 ASW-MPA, Y-8 RECCE, and Y-8 EW entered the Bashi Channel.
It should not be surprising to see increased UAV activity around Taiwan. What is surprising, however, is why the PLA has not used drones at a similar intensity before. We have noted previously that the PLA Navy Aviation (PLAN-A) has employed a range of UAVs, including the BZK-005, BZK-007, and TB-001, over the South China Sea and the East China Sea for years. In addition, the PLAN’s South Sea Fleet frequently deploys its BZK-005 and, recently, WZ-7 UAVs forward to both the Paracel and the Spratly islands for extended coverage of the critical sea lanes of communication, where they support the PLAN-A’s KQ-200 anti-submarine warfare and maritime patrol aircraft operations. Japan, too, has frequently reported PLA drones operating high above the East China Sea near the contested Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, and passing over the Miyako Strait to the western Pacific in support of PLAN surface vessels training and maritime domain awareness.
The PLA’s use of drones near Taiwan is frequently cited as another tool in Beijing’s “gray zone” toolbox to coerce Taipei below the threshold of open confrontation. Reports also assert that the recent circumnavigation sorties by PLA drones (April 28 and May 2) show China’s ability to surround Taiwan and pose a new challenge to Taipei and its embattled air force’s capacity to respond.
Moreover, analysts point to Chinese drones’ role in intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) operations, assassinations, and strikes. However, many such claims draw from drone usage of other countries, especially of the United States’ use of drones in non-contested environments like Afghanistan, the Middle East, and Africa. Assassination of Taiwan’s leadership with a large drone is simply not realistic. Chinese drones are inherently vulnerable to Taiwanese defenses. The Iranian Revolutionary Guard’s downing of the U.S. Air Force RQ-4A Global Hawk in the Strait of Hormuz in 2019 speaks volumes to this reality.
Commentaries in these pages have also referred to the ambiguous legal status surrounding drones and their use, which allegedly poses a challenge for Taipei. However, there should be no legal difference between a state aircraft, whether crewed or uncrewed, entering another state’s sovereign airspace (understood as the airspace above and within a state’s land border and the airspace above a state’s territorial sea, extending up to 12 nautical miles from the state’s high-water mark). Taiwan has the right to defend itself against intruding aircraft.
Furthermore, as the war in Ukraine has already shown, drones remain vulnerable to air defenses and electronic countermeasures. Indeed, after Russia adapted its tactics and techniques and concentrated its air defenses in the east and south of Ukraine, the much-famed Bayraktar has almost vanished from news coverage. Ukrainian troops admit that the frontlines have effectively become no-go zones for large drones like the Bayraktar. Moreover, as already mentioned, in 2019, Iran’s Revolutionary Guard shot down a U.S. Global Hawk HALE UAV over international waters close to Iran. These realities demonstrate the vulnerability of today’s drone fleets.
A closer look at Chinese drone flights near Taiwan reveal few surprises. Like the United States, Australia, Britain, and Japan, China is integrating large (MALE and HALE) UAVs into its naval operations. The PLA’s BZK-005, TB-001, and the “Soaring Dragon” are roughly equivalent to the U.S.-built MQ-9B “Sea Guardian” and MQ-4C “Triton,” or Israeli Hermes 900 MALE and HALE UAVs, specializing in maritime patrol, search and rescue (SAR), anti-submarine warfare (ASW), intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, and target acquisition (ISTAR), and signals intelligence (SIGINT). The large drones flying at a high altitude can monitor massive sea-spaces, using a combination of SAR/ISAR/GMTI and EO/IR sensors, and loiter over an area of interest for 30-40 hours without a break.
The PLA is also integrating its rapidly growing panoply of drones into its maritime “counter-invasion” strategy. As part of this, the PLA is integrating drones with other ISR capabilities like the KQ-200 ASW MPA, Y-8 Recce, Y-8/-9 ELINT, and Y-8/-9 ECM aircraft. Indeed, we witnessed this in both the circumnavigating flights on April 27 and May 2 (see also here and here). PLA drones were also recorded (see, here, here, and here) entering into Taiwan’s southeastern ADIZ and traveling along the eastern coast of the island before returning.
Most commonly, however, a BZK-005 UAV is seen operating with a KQ-200 ASW MPA in an area commonly patrolled by the latter, halfway between Taiwan and Pratas Island in the northern part of the South China Sea (see, for example, here, here and here). In addition, BZK-005s have been integrated into the PLAN’s surface and subsurface warfare training and exercises east of Taiwan (see here). It is also noticeable that the PLA seeks to employ drones, especially the BZK-005, in scouting for shooters. On January 9, Taiwan’s MND released data showing a BZK-005 venturing through the strategic Luzon Strait and into the western Pacific, trailed by maritime-strike capable H-6 bombers.
In several other instances, as part of a mixed formation, a BZK-005 has been dispatched past the Luzon Strait to monitor incoming maritime traffic while crewed KQ-200 and maritime-strike capable combat aircraft (typically J-16s) have patrolled halfway between Taiwan and Pratas Island, controlling entrance to the Taiwan Strait and China’s coastline (see, for example, here and here). Interestingly, the smaller and less-capable BZK-007 – essentially an unscrewed sports plane with electro-optical cameras – and the CH-4, an armed drone, have also infrequently been observed operating in close proximity with crewed ISR assets closer to China’s coast (see here and here).
It has been less than a year since PLA drones first appeared in the skies around Taiwan. Operating alongside seemingly complementary types, Chinese drones offer significant advantages in terms of range and loiter time (and hence geographic area covered in a single sortie) over their crewed counterparts. Critically, the mixed formations observed, and the roles adopted by the uncrewed systems suggest a high level of coordination between the two.
However, it is not well understood the extent to which the crewed and uncrewed platforms are integrated. It is not known if, for example, a BZK-005 can transfer its sensors’ imagery or video data directly to other (crewed) aircraft, including KQ-200 or J-16. It is also not known whether a KQ-200 or KJ-500 crew can take control of the UAV in air and retask it. Due to the high levels of secrecy surrounding these systems many questions remain.
Nevertheless, PLA operations around Taiwan demonstrate that China’s military is moving firmly ahead to integrate crewed and uncrewed platforms and ensure interoperability with other services.