A Low-Tech, Unkillable ‘Mesh’ Of Targeting Drones Could Help Destroy A Chinese Fleet Invading Taiwan

The trouble of a Chinese attack on Taiwan is one of the top questions in U.S. foreign policy. The constant deployment of forces to prevent or stop such an invasion could be a costly undertaking that would entail a significant portion of the Pentagon’s resources. Researchers from the think group RAND Corporation believe that a fresh approach based on drones with low cost could accomplish the task with ease and without advanced technology.

The first step is the necessity of identifying. An invading fleet is easily spotted from space; however, getting exact enough information to steer missiles is an entirely different issue.

“We’ve had a go at the Taiwan problem for nearly 20 years, but we’ve never had enough appreciation of the need to target,” Ochmanek told me. “There are hundreds of vessels that you are concerned about; however, there are hundreds of others in the region, including escorts and decoys fishing boats and other snares.”

Hamilton and Ochmanek think that a close-in survey that allows you to differentiate and identify the most crucial targets is best accomplished by a massive amount of drones, which’s overlapping fields of vision will cover the entire area of operation. Around 500 drones would be sufficient to make a mesh to pinpoint every ship from various angles.

“The goal of a target mesh is to steer a missile toward an exact ship and, in the case of a large ship, direct it to reach in the engine area,” says Hamilton.

The researchers examined the latest low-cost attributable technology for aircraft (L-CAAT), exemplified through the XQ-58 Valkyrie created specifically for the U.S. Air-Force. This drone weighs 6,000 pounds and is larger than the one needed to carry sensors that are required which is why they looked at the smaller 600-pound version that they named the Kitten.

“We purchase aircraft by the pound, and a 600-pound plane is only a tenth the cost of the 6,000-pound model,” says Ochmanek. “And in this case, you’ll want it to be affordable.”

The Kitten would be equipped with a small jet engine and a wingspan of approximately 18 feet, and it would travel at around 560 mph over up to six hours. It is based upon discussions with suppliers that each Kitten will cost about $300,000.

The Kittens will be equipped with comparatively basic sensors that are based on technology used in commercial. Instead of trying to see at a distance, the sensors will be able to get closest to.

“The principle is that if you spot something but you’re uncertain of what it’s, the first step is to mass-mail many Kittens to take an examination,” says Ochmanek.

Communication in the mesh and remote human operators that use multiple hops is made possible by millimeter-wave (MMW) radio, a technology that is extensively used in 5G communications.

“We discovered that the mobile industry had come up with technologies,” states Ochmanek. “They have made billions in investment, and we are leveraging this.”

MMW radio provides high bandwidth; however, it has a short-range. It lets adjacent drones communicate with one another by relaying signals to and from human operators. The limited coverage isn’t an issue as the drones in the mesh are grouped close to each other. Furthermore, since MMW signals don’t travel long distances, it is impossible to jam long-range signals since the jamming signal is blocked by just a couple of millimeters of air.

“For our purposes, the shorter distance is not a flaw but rather a feature,” says Ochmanek.

The most dangerous to the mesh will not be jamming but Chinese Surface-to-Air missiles. The fleet of invasion will unleash a massive volley of guided missiles on any object that resembles an aircraft believed to be in the air. For instance, every Type 055 destroyer has 128 launch tubes, and many will be equipped with surface-to-air weapons and many of these escorts.

Instead of securing drones using jammers, stealth, or other defense tools, the strategy is to fill defenses by deploying drones, ultimately exhausting the arsenal of missiles available to the enemy. As with the mythical Immortals who were unkillable from Persia, the target mesh keeps its power through constant replenishment. Every casualty is instantly replaced with a new drone.

“We made some conservative assumptions to give that the adversaries have to have a non-frictionless air defense. We believe that they will be able to launch at least a few thousand missiles,” claims Hamilton. “So we could have to deploy thousands of Kittens in a relatively short amount of time to keep the target mesh.”

The plan calls for thousands of drones instead of five hundred drones, but the cost-effective drone design makes the idea feasible. With a price of $300,000, drones are cheaper than missiles launched at them. U.S. Navy’s Standard-6 anti-aircraft missiles are priced at more than $4 million per shot.

With an adversary who absorbs all its missiles and missiles, the Chinese may choose to conserve their arsenals for larger targets such as human-crewed aircraft and cruise missiles that are coming in. The question of whether they’d manage to avoid the numerous drones that close with their ships at speeds of more than 500 mph is a different matter. In any event, the mesh acts as a missile sponge that diverts the anti-aircraft fire away from piloted aircraft.

Since the mesh is difficult to kill from the air, the Chinese could seek off the drone launch sites. However, based on their past experiences, researchers have chosen an approach that avoids traditional airfields.

“In every wargame, we play our wargaming, we face issues with maintaining sortie rates from fixed airbases,” Hamilton says. Hamilton.

Mobile units that are made up of less than trailers and trucks could launch drones. Similar launchers on mobiles were used in drone operations that were not piloted by aircraft from the 1960s and proved to be valid and durable. They are challenging to identify and locate in the air. The dispersed design presents the Chinese with the same problem that proved a challenge for Scud-hunters in 1991’s Iraq conflict.

Even if launchers could be found, they’d not attract the same type of counter-force attacks as airfields.

“There only a handful of vehicles and a few people but nothing worth the expense of a TBM. “The only thing that is worth it is a TBM tactical Ballistic Missile],” Ochmanek says. Ochmanek.

The RAND team has calculated that a squadron of 500 people would be able to launch up to 1,200 Kittens over 24 hours. Five of these squadrons is enough to completely cover the Taiwan invasion zone using an extensive targeting mesh.

How much difference can the drones’ unarmed mesh make in a military attack?

A remarkable difference is due to the benefits that are often overlooked by targeted data that is precise.

Researchers estimate that there would be approximately 1,550 ships within an invading force in the Taiwan Strait: 50 high-value ships, amphibious vessels with a minimum of 50 tanks, or equivalents for each 250 recycled commercial vessels with ten tanks, and 250 additional commercial vessels carrying four tanks, and 1000 other vessels that have not directly in the conflict and are considered to be decoys. The precise numbers aren’t as significant as the proportion of high-value targets to decoys and low-value targets that deplete allied missiles.

If the target is not practical, The study suggests it will take around 10000 AGM-84 Harpoons to eliminate 72% of a fleet’s capacity to carry tanks. However, with the target mesh, only 1,000 missiles can stop up to 80% of the invading tanks before they land to bring the invading force to a halt.

These numbers are significant. Achieving 10,000 Harpoons in a single swoop is nearly impossible, but 1,000 is far more feasible. The most effective platform for delivery is the Virginia-class nuclear attack submarines. The modern version with the most advanced capabilities is capable of carrying 65 missiles at a time. The Navy is planning to equip 31 Virginia Class subs with the extended missiles. Also, it is possible that the Navy could accomplish the task by using only a portion of the submarines in its fleet. (Targeting information could also be transferred to other submarines like those purchased from Australia or owned by the U.K. as part of the AUKUS partnership).

Finding a ship’s target at the long-distance could be difficult for submarines, particularly when it’s sailing alongside many other vessels. This is precisely the challenge this targeting net addresses perfectly, ensuring that every shot counts while subs are at a similar distance away from anti-submarine units.

Submarines can be augmented with other launch platforms, such as ships or even long-range aircraft. A B-52 bomber can carry anywhere from 8 -12 Harpoons. In the ideal scenario, 100 B-52 missions could deliver all the firepower needed to defeat the invading force while also staying far from defenses – with the help of the mesh for targeting.

Hamilton and Ochmanek’s research paper was well-received and followed by a second, more in-depth study, which is not yet made public.

“We’ve conducted the technical analysis of paper as much as we could,” says Ochmanek. “It appears to be feasible; however, until you use it to make air vehicle, the idea is unreal.”

The next phase would involve experiments and demonstrations using air vehicles to determine how the sensor, communications, and launch ideas would function according to plan. Researchers were unable to discuss the funding plan or the development of this research.

To some people, this continually replenished drone targeting mesh might seem like a bizarre concept. However, others might find it appealing in many ways. One of the reasons is that it is a powerful force multiplier that increases the potential of assets already in place instead of replacing them. It’s a risk-free option since it does not depend on new technologies. Researchers note that new capabilities such as drone-based A.I. will benefit this mesh, but they are more beneficial than necessary.

The primary reason is that the targeting mesh has an astonishingly low cost. The entire supply of launchers, drones, and the staff to manage the task can be placed in place at a fraction of the multibillion-dollar cost of constructing a single new destroyer or submarine.

The targeting mesh isn’t an actual drone swarm since the drones aren’t self-contained and working together. However, it provides an understanding of how effective massive numbers of inexpensive drones are when combined with some creativity. The very fact that a targeting mesh exists may be enough to convince Chinese planners that the threat of invasion of Taiwan isn’t possible, making it a cost-effective and non-nuclear-weapon.

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Adam Collins
Adam writes about technology, business and economics. With master's degree in Economics, he's presented six papers in international conferences. As a solivagant in the constant state of fernweh, curiosity is the main weapon in his arsenal.

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