China's Nightmare: Why Is Taiwan Building Kamikaze Drones?

David Axe

Key Point: Taipei is trying out new technologies in the hope that they can deter and defend and against Beijing.

A new suicide drone appeared at the August 2019 edition of the biennial Taipei Aerospace & Defense Technology Exhibition in the island country’s capital.

The unmanned aerial vehicle bears a strong resemblance to the small, hand-launched drones that are popular with U.S. forces. The other clearly draws inspiration from Israel’s Harpy anti-radar drone.

A suicide drone essentially is a small, inexpensive cruise missile, usually possessing some loitering capability. They might include a simple seeker head. Alternately, their operators remotely could steer them toward their targets.

Often based on commercial UAVs, suicide drones typically pack a small, grenade-size explosive warhead.

The Fire Cardinal drone, which first appeared at the Taipei trade show, is “an air-to-ground strike assault UAV,” according to the aviation-news website Alert 5, citing information from the show.

The twin-propeller Fire Cardinal is around four feet long, has a six-foot wingspan and weighs around 15 pounds. It includes an electro-optical and infrared sensor and selects its target using what Alert 5 described as an “intelligent object-detection system.”

Alert 5 did not speculate as to Fire Cardinal’s range, but it’s roughly the same size as the U.S. Army’s hand-launched Puma surveillance drone. The propeller-driven Puma can range as far as 10 miles at an altitude of 500 feet and a maximum speed of around 50 miles per hour.

A human operator controls a Puma via radio. It’s safe to assume the Fire Cardinal, with its own modest range and performance, features a similar control system. Ground troops in close proximity to enemy forces could lob many Fire Cardinals into the air in the hope of overwhelming the enemy’s short-range air defenses.

That’s the tactic that militant forces in the Middle East have employed with their own, custom-made suicide drones. In January 2018 a swarm of 10 explosives-laden small drones, apparently controlled by Syrian rebels, attacked two Russian bases in western Syria.

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