Ukraine has proven it can effectively target ships with explosive USVs that are unmanned below the waterline. Future invasions of Taiwan by Chinese forces may be thwarted with the help of these weapons.
USVs have the potential to inflict catastrophic damage because they can strike at the waterline with heavier payloads than similarly sized missiles or uncrewed aircraft. It can be tricky to detect, track, and target swarms of low-profile USVs coming at you quickly from a variety of directions. If even just a few made it, that would be considered a success.
The Chinese Communist Party may think that a series of limited attacks against Taiwan’s people, military, and infrastructure will force the island to capitulate, but Putin’s abortive conquest of Ukraine shows that such assumptions may be mistaken. The People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) may have to send a large number of ships across the strait to transport troops, weapons, ammunition, landing craft, tanks, and other vehicles, as well as supplies like food, medicine, and fuel, if they want to successfully seize Taiwan.
Taiwan could respond to the PLAN fleet by launching hundreds or even thousands of explosive USVs. A variety of piers along Taiwan’s west coast and the offshore islands it controls would be suitable for launching small USVs like Ukraine’s, which are about 12 feet in length and have a shallow draught. Because the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) would have to successfully strike numerous storage sites while Taiwan’s air defences were still intact, at a time when it would have many other targets, they might be safer if dispersed across a variety of military and civilian facilities during initial storage.
Swarms of USVs could swarm the area, which was rich in targets, as the PLAN fleet attempted to cross the Taiwan Strait. Explosive USVs built specifically for this purpose could be built to be extremely stealthy, sticking only a few centimetres above the water. These low-visibility targets would have to be identified and shot down in a matter of seconds along a variety of vectors. Due to the lack of human passengers, some of the USVs may be able to withstand being shot at (literally and metaphorically). It’s possible that a few unmanned surface vehicles (USVs) will be able to breach the defences and cause harm.
Besides warships, the PLAN’s access to the strait would also allow for the passage of massive cargo ships carrying a wide variety of supplies. Such ships could be attacked by USVs if they were to sneak into a formation of defenceless ships while the defences of the other ships were overwhelmed. Although the cargo ships might not have many natural defences against USVs, their size makes them hard to sink.
There are other ways to damage them and their cargo that could be considered besides using multiple USVs to attack them. Explosive quadcopter unmanned aerial vehicles, for instance, could be delivered by a subset of the USVs; these vehicles would enter the hull breaches created by the explosive USVs and would then disperse to cause damage. The quadcopters could impede rescue efforts and cause additional damage to facilities.
Alternatively, some USVs could be equipped with incendiary liquids and a simple pump, rather than explosives, and directed at openings in the system. If incendiary material were to be injected into a ship like a firehose, the resulting smoke and heat would likely force the crew to abandon ship rather than try to save it. If the crew stayed on board, they might be hampered in their attempts to minimise the damage and salvage any usable equipment. Incendiary weapons, such as the “Greek fire” used to destroy wooden ships, could severely hamper an aggressor’s ability to launch an amphibious attack.
Taiwan could purchase one thousand of Ukraine’s explosive USVs for slightly more than one percent of its annual $20 billion spent on defence, or the price of about three F-35s. Low operating expenses include servicing, training, and fuel. Taiwan, with its advanced technology, could easily design and manufacture thousands of these weapons in a short amount of time and acquire them.
If Taiwan had been given advance notice of an attack, it could have used naval mines to protect vulnerable areas of the strait. It was not uncommon for USVs to launch attacks before the main fleet had finished clearing the minefields, making vulnerable any vessels sent ahead of the main fleet to clear the minefields. The invading fleet might need to slow down and keep a tight formation with as few parallel lines as possible to lessen the risk of being blown up by the minefields. Given that USVs have larger collective perimeters than tight formations and longer transit times, long, slower-moving linear processions of targets could be particularly vulnerable to attacks.
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Even if combined with naval minefields, explosive USVs probably wouldn’t be enough to defeat an invading PLAN fleet. Although they may not be as effective as anti-ship missiles or air-dropped bombs, they could still cause significant damage to the fleet as it crossed the Taiwan Strait. An array of low-cost USVs could threaten the PLAN enough to deter an invasion of Taiwan by the Chinese Communist Party.
This would work by increasing the risk to an invasion fleet and, potentially, reducing the capacity of an invasion force. Taiwan can help protect itself from invasion and lessen the likelihood of a catastrophic war by investing modestly in these systems.