National Interest: Will Taiwan Build Its Own Fearsome Killer Drones?

Taiwan reportedly has solved a problem that has prevented the island country from developing its own medium-altitude attack drones.

In signing a deal with an Australian company to provide American-designed engines, Taipei has assembled all the basic components it needs to develop a killer drone in the class of the U.S. MQ-9.

Taiwan’s Chinese Academy of Sciences in April 2018 conducted the first test flight of the Teng Yun unmanned aerial vehicle.

A propeller-driven, medium-altitude UAV similar in dimension to the 36-feet-long MQ-9, the Teng Yun, in theory, could be a surveillance platform and an attack aircraft that’s capable of firing missiles and dropping bombs.

Such a drone could be invaluable to Taiwanese forces attempting to detect and repel attacking Chinese troops.

But the first version of the Teng Yun had a problem. To power the drone, Taiwanese engineers reverse-engineered and copied a Honeywell TPE331 turboprop engine that the government legally acquired on the commercial market.

The TPE331 clone however didn’t quite match the performance of the original engine, according to Up Media. A Teng Yun with the clone engine could function as a surveillance aircraft, but lacked the performance to carry ordnance.

So Taipei approached an Australian firm that under license produces original TPE331s. But the Australian company had a 600-day production backlog, meaning it could take two years to fill a Taiwanese order. Taipei request just two TPE331s on an emergency basis and shelled out $6.4 million for them.

According to a local media report, the Taiwanese air force and the Chinese Academy of Sciences are collaborating on the reverse-engineering of the General Electric J85 engine, two of which power each of Taiwan’s roughly two-dozen F-5 fighters.

A Taiwanese J85 clone could power new cruise missile types. According to local media, the same Chinese Academy of Sciences that are tearing down the J85 is also developing a cruise missile with a 750-mile range.

A Taiwanese missile powered by a J85 also could be fast — possibly even supersonic. America’s subsonic Tomahawk cruise missile weighs 3,000 pounds. Its F107 engine produces just 700 pounds of thrust, less than a quarter of the thrust an afterburning J85 produces.

“Taiwan has pursued these programs discreetly to avoid raising concern in the United States or the People’s Republic,” the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Strategic and International Studies explained.

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