East Asia in the Era of Unmanned Wars


The rising use of unmanned systems is reshaping Asia’s security dilemma in flashpoints like the Taiwan Strait.

By Tobias Burgers and Scott N. Romaniuk

Several years ago, in a series of articles published in The Diplomat, we analyzed the emergence of unmanned systems, highlighting their role in the progression toward a period characterized by reduced human involvement in conflicts and the advent of unmanned warfare in the Asian region. In our articles, we have emphasized the potential security tensions arising from the increased incorporation of unmanned systems into security dynamics in the Asia-Pacific region. This development has given rise to a burgeoning security dilemma.

Throughout the course of our discussions and evaluations, we predominantly engaged in hypothetical analysis, employing potential scenarios to exemplify the inherent risk associated with these systems, which could lead to heightened levels of misunderstanding and subsequently foster the likelihood of escalatory spirals. The previous discourse surrounding potential escalation scenarios has now evolved into, and should appropriately transition toward, an examination of tangible practicalities.

In the Asia-Pacific region, the use and prevalence of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are experiencing a notable surge and are gradually becoming a customary practice, or “normalized,”, particularly amid the political tensions in the East China Sea and the Taiwan Strait. These systems are employed for a range of military-security objectives, encompassing both offensive and, notably, defensive operations. We argue that the utilization of unmanned systems by offensive actors offers distinct benefits while employing unmanned systems for defensive purposes is not an optimal strategy.

As previously stated in our articles and currently emphasized, our argument posits that the proliferation of these systems, in conjunction with the lack of an established framework of regulations and standards, amplifies the vulnerability within already strained security rivalries. This, in turn, heightens the likelihood of misunderstandings, erroneous assessments, and unintended outcomes that may escalate countries into a state of armed conflict, irrespective of their original intentions to avoid or remain neutral in such hostilities.

From an offensive military standpoint, there is a compelling rationale for the proliferation of unmanned systems. First, the economic argument can be considered. Engaging in such operations incurs significant expenses, and although gray-zone operations serve as a means of political manipulation, they are also inherently intertwined with economic aspects.

Due to escalating intrusions by Chinese vessels and aircraft, including unmanned systems, Japan and Taiwan have been compelled to augment their aerial and naval patrols. Consequently, the allocation of military budgets is redirected from alternative sectors, such as the acquisition of weaponry. When examining the budget disparities between China and Japan, particularly in relation to Taiwan, one could assert that these actions are rational when analyzed from a Chinese perspective.

Currently, there is evidence of Taiwan reducing manned operations aimed at countering Chinese forces in its air and sea territories. Instead of employing manned systems, Taiwan has transitioned to utilizing radar tracking methods to monitor hostile forces. In March 2023, Taiwan introduced a novel combat surveillance drone, which can be perceived as an unmanned countermeasure against unmanned hazards. Taiwan has recently introduced a series of indigenous military drones, including the Albatross II UAV, through collaboration with state-owned military weapons developers.

This exemplifies the impact that operations conducted by China have on the military capabilities of Taiwan. Even without overt hostilities, these actions could impose significant financial burdens on Taiwan and potentially diminish its available resources, albeit not necessarily exhaust them.

In an article for War on the Rocks published two years ago, Michael Prouty, a prominent naval commander in the United States, presented several justifications for delegating freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs) to unmanned systems. One of Prouty’s arguments included the potential for cost reductions, coupled with the advantage of augmenting Taiwan’s human resources. The primary focus of his article pertained to the proposition that the United States should employ unmanned systems. However, it is worth noting that similar cost-saving dynamics also apply to China. The utilization of unmanned systems, in both aerial and sea domains, is inherently more economically advantageous compared to their manned counterparts.

In addition to the economic rationale, the operational argument holds significance, as it is intricately intertwined with economic and political perspectives. Unmanned systems exhibit superior endurance capabilities compared to their human counterparts. This implies that China has the potential to engage in incursions more frequently using unmanned systems, as recently demonstrated by China’s use of unmanned systems to circumnavigate Taiwan.

Simultaneously, the prolonged presence of these systems in the periphery of Taiwan’s air defense identification zone (ADIZ) implies an increased potential for encroachment into defensive territories. This implies that human intervention by the defender (in this case, Taiwan) is required on each occasion, in addition to the resources dedicated to monitoring these systems. Therefore, from an economic and operational standpoint, the implementation of these systems appears advantageous for individuals aiming to challenge the dominance of opposing actors in air and sea control.

Moreover, through each successive incursion, China has the ability to gradually erode, or cut away another slice of the “control salami,” the perception of Japan and Taiwan’s capability to effectively govern and safeguard their respective airspace and maritime territories.

With that in mind, China has effectively employed its unmanned fleet in various significant political conflicts within the Asia-Pacific region, showcasing the successful integration of this system into Beijing’s gray-zone operations. Moreover, the use of increasingly sophisticated unmanned systems across various domains aligns neatly with China’s existing strategy. From the Taiwan Strait to the East and South China Seas, Beijing consistently challenges the political authority of other nations over their respective air and sea territories through various intrusions, such as airspace violations and potential future encroachments into territorial waters.

The concept of the “cumulative strategy,” as articulated by James Holmes, involves a gradual erosion of the perception that Taiwan, Japan, or other relevant actors possess full control over their respective air and sea territories. This strategy effectively extends the sphere of influence of the People’s Republic of China. The situation in the South China Sea is an example where the cumulative strategy has demonstrated success. Over the past two decades, what was once a disputed waterway has now come under effective control by China.

The Use of Defensive Unmanned Systems

As the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) expands its deployment of military units in various missions, it becomes evident that Japan’s Self-Defense Forces (SDF), and especially the Taiwanese armed forces, are facing challenges in effectively countering the PLA’s increased force projection.

In contrast to the PLA, which frequently deploys numerous aircraft and multiple naval vessels, Taiwan’s response is characterized by a notably restricted deployment of military assets. This phenomenon is at times also noticed when the SDF reacts to PLA intrusions. This observation reinforces the prevailing political perception that China is experiencing significant growth in both military and political influence, increasingly outstripping potential adversaries.

In response, Japan and Taiwan are currently contemplating the utilization of unmanned systems as a means to address the incursions into their respective air and sea territories, as recently emphasized in a Nikkei Asia article.

While the effectiveness of unmanned systems in high-intensity conflict situations is apparent, their utility in addressing intrusions primarily driven by political rather than military objectives is lacking. If the goal is to establish a sense of territorial control, the utilization of manned systems is significantly more advantageous.

As we illustrated before, communication is key in such intrusions, in particular direct communication meant to warn off intruding actors. That piece of control is absent when unmanned systems are deployed to monitor and observe intrusions. This weakness will become in particularly evident if unmanned systems were to be used to counter manned intrusions. Here the perception could easily arise that the defending side is not able to react by the same means, thus bringing forward a position of weakness.

And perception plays a significant role in the broader political conflicts within the region, encompassing the East China Sea, the Taiwan Strait, and the South China Sea. Specifically, the perception of dominance and political strength holds considerable importance. Therefore, the decision to employ unmanned systems for defensive objectives may be interpreted as a manifestation of military vulnerability. Instead, further reliance on manned systems to counter such intrusions seems necessary.

The Question of Escalation

While unmanned systems may not be ideal for defensive purposes, they will continue to have value in offensive operations. How will this trend reshape the security environment in the Asia-Pacific?

In his article cited above, Prouty asserted that the absence of human operators in unmanned systems would result in a reduced likelihood of escalation, arguing that their potential destruction would be less escalatory. Prouty’s contention, drawing upon a previous publication by scholar Erik Lin-Greenberg, posits that the act of annihilating UAVs would be interpreted as a comparatively less aggressive action.

While we concur with that argument, we contend that the logical proposition can be inverted: The lack of human operators and the reduced escalatory consequences associated with unmanned systems offer the offensive side an extra level of escalation, while also limiting the opportunities for manned personnel to communicate or signal with each other. This limits possible efforts to prevent a violent engagement that could unintentionally lead both sides into a heated conflict. Thus the deployment of unmanned systems aligns cohesively with a broader strategy that progressively intensifies pressure on the defensive faction.

In a recent interview carried out by the Japan Times, Zhou Bo, a former senior colonel in the PLA, emphasized that the probability of escalation and the potential for conflict are significantly higher in the South China Sea when compared to the conflict in the Taiwan Strait. Zhou argued that “a war over Taiwan would unlikely be caused by accident, given the level of scrutiny applied to every word uttered and every action taken by each side.”

Although this perspective holds value, its validity is limited to interactions between manned systems. When unmanned aerial systems are added to the mix – whether they are interacting with unmanned or manned counterparts – there is no ability to subject each word and action to meticulous scrutiny – and political control. In contrast, all parties engaged in such an interaction are, due to the absence of established frameworks, unsure how to exactly engage and react.

Japanese and Taiwanese military forces have started integrating assertive and violent countermeasures into their existing strategies in order to respond effectively to such intrusions. Effectively, these nations are developing policies that allow for violent responses to unmanned intrusions. While this has not occurred against military systems with evident military markings, it raises the possibility such could occur.

In particular, imagine a scenario in which unmanned system were used for defensive purposes: Lacking abilities to directly communicate, actors might opt to strike against offensive unmanned systems with their own unmanned armed systems. In this specific context, characterized by the absence of a universally agreed-upon framework of actions and the absence of established rules and norms, there is a notable probability of escalation.

Dr. Burgers would like to thank the Republic of China (Taiwan) and its Ministry of Education for providing an STRA grant that made the research for this article possible.