The year 2022 saw a steady escalation in terms of People’s Republic of China (PRC) military aviation activity directed at Taiwan—particularly in terms of the number of aircraft sorties into Taiwan’s declared air defense identification zone (ADIZ), and flights crossing the Taiwan Strait centerline. While such activity had been gradually increasing since 2019, it spiked dramatically in August 2022 following the visit to Taiwan by then-US Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi—and has remained at elevated, albeit fluctuating, levels ever since. While Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) flights into the ADIZ and over the centerline have received the lion’s share of attention, a less well-noted development—and one potentially more menacing for Taiwan’s security interests—is the increasing number of PLA sorties, and naval activity, conducted to the east of Taiwan.
PLA aircraft began to circumnavigate Taiwan on an episodic basis in 2016-2017, with this mission being performed primarily by PLA Air Force (PLAAF) H-6K bombers. Bomber flights east of Taiwan were also noted in the past year in conjunction with PLA Navy (PLAN) carrier deployments. For example, in mid-December 2022, during a “beyond the island chain training” (跨島鏈訓練) deployment by the PLAN Liaoning aircraft carrier group, two PLAN Air Force (PLANAF) H-6J bombers flew through the Miyako Strait (east-northeast of Taiwan) to a point near Japan’s Daito Island. In doing so, it is possible that they used the Liaoning escort ships for a mutual targeting exercise, demonstrating an increased willingness to operate in airspace farther out into the Pacific Ocean.
At the end of April, the PLA also initiated flights around Taiwan with unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs)—a step that could significantly increase the number of PLA aviation sorties in Taiwan airspace, as well as further augment the PLA’s air-breathing reconnaissance coverage of the eastern littoral regions of Taiwan. While China-based UAVs have flown over or near Taiwan-administered territory before, the initiation of long-range reconnaissance flights by more capable military UAVs is a new development, and represents yet another provocative step in the PRC’s coercive pressure directed against the island.
The PLA Begins UAV Circumnavigation Flights Around Taiwan in Late April
The PLA has been using drone flights to surveil and probe Taiwan’s outlying islands in an overt fashion since at least last year. For instance, news media revealed an August 2022 incident in which Taiwan soldiers on Erdan Island (二膽島) in the Kinmen Island Group threw rocks in an apparent effort to drive away an unidentified low-flying drone, which was presumed to have originated in the PRC. Following a string of similar reports of low-flying UAV surveillance and harassment over the Taiwan-administered islands close to the PRC coast, Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense (MND, 中華民國國防部) altered its rules of engagement and ordered the shoot down of a presumed PRC drone over Lion Islet (獅嶼, also in the Kinmen Group) on September 1.
Image: A MND graphic showing the April 28 flight paths of a Chinese TB-001 UAV that circumnavigated Taiwan in a counter-clockwise pattern, and a BZK-005 UAV that flew to the east of Taiwan, as well as the sorties of supporting aircraft. (Image source: Taiwan MND)
Such flights by lower-altitude (and apparently, cheaper and off-the-shelf) UAVs around Taiwan’s outlying islands are now being buttressed by sorties made by longer-range, higher-end military UAVs. Most significantly, at the end of April these flights began to circumnavigate Taiwan for the first time, adding a new aircraft type to the bombers that have flown periodic circuits around Taiwan over the past several years.  As of the writing of this article, three such flights have occurred: on April 28, May 3, and May 11.
On this day, a TB-001 Tengden UAV flew the first publicly reported circumnavigation flight around Taiwan—flying first through the Bashi Channel south of Taiwan, and then circling the island in a counter-clockwise direction around its eastern side. On the same day, a BZK-005 Chang Ying drone flew a similar flight path for roughly the first half of its sortie, but doubled back at a point east of Taiwan and returned along its original track (see accompanying graphic).
- The April 28 drone flights were also accompanied by sorties of other PLA aircraft: five Su-30 fighters operating at the north and the center of the Taiwan Strait, with shallow penetration of the centerline; eight J-10 fighters operating at the center of the Strait, crossing the centerline; and two J-16 fighters at the south end of the Strait, also crossing the centerline. Two Y-8 patrol aircraft (one an anti-submarine patrol variant, the other a reconnaissance variant) also conducted flights in the southwest quadrant of Taiwan’s ADIZ, likely carrying out supporting reconnaissance operations.
Five days after the first UAV circumnavigation flight, a BZK-005 Chang Ying drone circumnavigated Taiwan in a clockwise pattern, following a flight path that approached Taiwan from the north, continued through airspace to the east of Taiwan, and passed through the Bashi Channel south of Taiwan on a homeward track.
- As with the previous flight on April 30, the BZ-005 flight was also accompanied by supporting sorties of PLA manned aircraft: three Su-30 fighters operating at the north end of the Taiwan Strait, with centerline penetration; four J-10 fighters operating at the center of the Strait, crossing the centerline; and two J-16 fighters at the south end of the Strait, also crossing the centerline. A total of three Y-8 patrol aircraft (an anti-submarine variant, a reconnaissance variant, and an electronic warfare variant) also conducted flights in the southwest quadrant of Taiwan’s ADIZ, once again likely conducting supporting reconnaissance operations.
Image: A MND graphic showing the May 11 flight paths of a Chinese CH-4 UAV that circumnavigated Taiwan in a clockwise pattern, and BZK-005 and TB-001 UAVs that flew through the Bashi Channel, as well as the sorties of supporting aircraft. (Image source: Taiwan MND)
After a week-long hiatus following the second UAV circumnavigation flight, on May 11 another series of long-range UAV flights occurred. On this date, a CH-4 Cai Hong UAV circumnavigated Taiwan in a clockwise path, similar to the route on May 3. Two additional UAV flights also occurred—involving a TB-001 and a BZK-005—running a partial route through the Bashi Channel and back (similar to the BZK-005 route on April 28, although apparently not extending as far around the island’s eastern side).
- In addition to the three UAVs, other PLA supporting aircraft were also active: two Su-30 fighters flew at the north end of the Taiwan Strait, crossing the centerline; a total of six J-10 fighters flew routes in the central and southern areas of the Taiwan Strait, crossing the centerline; and a Y-8 electronic warfare aircraft flew a probable reconnaissance mission in the southwest quadrant of Taiwan’s ADIZ.
Chinese Reconnaissance / Strike UAVs Circumnavigating Taiwan
The TB-001 Tengden (騰盾) (AKA “Scorpion”) is a twin-engine, twin-tailed drone manufactured by Sichuan Tengden Technology, which possesses a reported range of 3,700 miles, and is capable of both aerial reconnaissance and strike missions with air-to-ground munitions. The BZK-005 Chang Ying (長鷹, “Long Eagle”)—a platform produced by Beihang University and the Harbin Industry Aircraft Group, and which is often compared to the US-made Global Hawk UAV in design and capabilities—conducted the second reported circumnavigation of Taiwan by a PLA drone on May 3. The CH-4 Cai Hong (彩虹) (“Rainbow”) is a long-range, air-to-ground strike-capable drone manufactured by the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC), which is often compared in design to the US-designed MQ-9 Reaper drone system. All three platforms demonstrate the advances made by PRC state-affiliated technology research and development institutions in developing more advanced UAV aircraft for military roles—as well as the extensive reverse-engineering of US drone technology that has played a major role in China’s own design advancements.
Image left: A file photo of a TB-001 drone (undated). Image source: Sohu.com)
Image right: A file photo of a BZK-005 drone from a PLA military parade (undated). (Image source: CNR.cn)
PRC Media Commentary on the Circumnavigation Flights
Following a recent pattern in which PRC media outlets have actively publicized military operations around Taiwan for propaganda purposes, the UAV circumnavigation flights have been extensively touted in PRC sources. For example, the nationalist tabloid Global Times asserted on May 4—the day after the second flight—that the UAV flights were part of a larger demonstration of the PLA’s “enhanced capabilities [for] safeguarding national sovereignty, security and development interests,” which included ongoing naval exercise activity in the sea spaces adjoining Taiwan. The paper asserted that “the drones could conduct reconnaissance on the eastern side of the island and provide target guidance for fire strikes,” as well as potentially “carry[ing] out decapitation strikes on secessionist leaders should a conflict break out.” The Global Times further noted that “the PLA has been holding routine patrols and exercises around the island of Taiwan, including with drones, so such island encirclement drone flights could also become regular [in practice].”
PRC sources seemed particularly interested in stressing the idea that UAVs equipped with air-to-surface missiles could be a weapon for conducting “decapitation” strikes against leadership targets in Taiwan. For example, one state media posting about the circumnavigation flights described missile-capable UAVs as “decapitation weapons” (斬首武器), and mused that such flights could represent the initiation of “decapitation operations” (斬首行動) directed at Taiwan. Another such article described missile-launching UAVs such as the TB-001 as “decapitation magic weapons” (斬首神器), and predicted that such UAV flights around the island would now become regular components of PLA operations.
The commencement of publicly reported military UAV flights circumnavigating Taiwan is likely intended to provide the PLA with benefits in two areas. The first of these lies in the realm of tactical reconnaissance, wherein regular flights by unmanned, air-breathing platforms could provide the PLA with additional electronic and photo reconnaissance collection on military targets and infrastructure facilities located along the eastern coastal regions of the island. Such collection will be important to PLA planners considering operations as a part of a potential future blockade—as was reportedly practiced during the PLA’s “Joint Sword” (聯合利劍) exercise that followed the meeting between Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) and US Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy in April 2023.
The second area is likely the more important one for PLA and Chinese Communist Party (CCP) officials: the psychological realm, as part of the PLA’s ongoing political warfare efforts to apply coercive pressure against both the government and population of Taiwan. China’s “gray zone” operations against Taiwan, as well as major military exercises such as those conducted around Taiwan in August 2022 (see here and here), are calculated at least as much for political and psychological effect as they are for improving the operational capacity of PLA forces. It is in this respect that the propaganda emphasis on UAV “decapitation operations” should be understood: the CCP propaganda apparatus wishes to promote a narrative of stealthy and ever-present platforms capable of eliminating “separatist” officials at any time.
The introduction of UAV circumnavigation flights around Taiwan does not represent a dramatic step forward in PLA capabilities—except perhaps in the limited terms of greater employment of UAVs for longer-range reconnaissance. It does represent, however, the latest gradual escalatory step in levying greater coercive military pressure against the island. Just like the now near-daily PLA flights into Taiwan’s southwestern ADIZ and the flights across the Taiwan Strait centerline that have been a normal feature of Taiwan Strait air activity since August 2022, UAV circumnavigation flights may now be expected to form part of the “new normal” of PLA aviation activity around Taiwan.
The main point: In the last week of April and the first half of May, the PLA flew the first publicly acknowledged circumnavigation flights around Taiwan by unmanned aerial vehicles. Such flights may now be expected to become a regular feature of PLA aviation activity around Taiwan.
 Of note, one PRC media source consulted for this article asserted that a Chinese TB-001 flight conducted during the 2022 Han Kuang (漢光演習) military exercise represented the first actual UAV circumnavigation flight around Taiwan—but that this flight had not been publicized, due to the fact that “at that time the two sides handled it in a low-key fashion.” This assertion has not been corroborated in other sources, such as the official daily reports of PLA aviation activity near Taiwan reported by Taiwan’s MND.