US forecasts masses of drones in war game focused on China and Taiwan

The US carried out a war game that sought to see how future technologies could help prevent an invasion of Taiwan. It comes amid tensions between the US and China and also between the US and Russia. The US sees these countries as near-peer adversaries.

“The U.S. Air Force repelled a Chinese invasion of Taiwan during a massive war game last fall by relying on drones acting as a sensing grid, an advanced sixth-generation fighter jet able to penetrate the most contested environments,” the Defense News piece notes.

Drones were a key part of this story. The US has relied on a legacy of drone power and platforms that date from the 1990s and has been slow to procure more advanced systems. Other countries like China and Iran have been developing new drones. Australia is working with a new Loyal Wingman program and other countries are working on man-unmanned teaming (MUM-T). “The Air Force’s performance this fall offers a clearer vision of what mix of aircraft, drones, networks and other weapons systems it will need in the next decade if it hopes to beat China in a potential war. Some of those items could influence fiscal 2023 budget deliberations.” The article further notes that “Taiwan had successfully increased defense spending as outlined by President Tsai Ing-wen, who has called for buying drones and electronic warfare equipment.”

The heart of the piece by Valerie Insinna is a longer discussion of the role of drones in a future conflict.It is worth quoting at length:

Much of the Air Force’s legacy drone inventory — such as the General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper and Northrop Grumman RQ-4 Global Hawk — operated in combat during the 2000s and 2010s across the uncontested battlespaces of the Middle East, where U.S. adversaries could not present significant electronic warfare or counter-air capabilities. But a war with a competitor like China some 30 years later requires more advanced and survivable drones. For the war game, the Air Force relied on a mix of systems that are either under development or not currently sought by the service’s acquisition arm. Autonomous ‘Loyal Wingman’ drones flew alongside penetrating fighters in contested zones, providing additional firepower and sensor data to human pilots. Hinote pointed to Australia’s Loyal Wingman aircraft, which is produced by Boeing and flew for the first time in February, as an “impressive” capability that the U.S. sought to mirror in its war game.

This is important because it notes that America’s drone power is derived from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan where it didn’t have to deal with air defense. However the shoot down of the Global Hawk by Iran in 2019 showcases what can happen when expensive, $200 million drones, come up against air defense. New wars fought by Azerbaijan have showcased what more modern drone wars look like.

The article notes:

Across the Taiwan Strait, the service operated a mass of small, inexpensive drones that formed a mesh network. Although they were mostly used as a sensing grid, some were outfitted with weapons capable of — for instance — hitting small ships moving from the Chinese mainland across the strait. “An unmanned vehicle that is taking off from Taiwan and doesn’t need to fly that far can actually be pretty small. And because it’s pretty small, and you’ve got one or two sensors on it, plus a communications node, then those are not expensive. You could buy hundreds of them,” he said. In the second island chain, the Air Force operated low-cost attritable drones out of installations such as Andersen Air Force Base in Guam. These aircraft, like the Kratos XQ-58A Valkyrie currently undergoing tests by the service, delivered ordnance against ships, aircraft and ground-based targets. Attritable drones are cheap enough that combat losses can be endured by commanders. Even farther out, the service flew a notional successor to the RQ-4 Global Hawk, which Hinote said would not survive a conflict with China in the mid-2030s.Instead of concentrating on ISR, the Air Force primarily used the RQ-4 replacement as a long-range communications node, sometimes outfitting it with more exquisite radar that can track moving, airborne targets. Hinote likened the platform to an unmanned version of Australia’s E-7A Wedgetail aircraft.

Stephen Silver at The National Interest also covered this story. His piece focused less on the drone aspect.

The big question here is if the US will be able to acquire these platforms by 2030. The upcoming book Drone Wars should help answer some of those key questions.

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