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Red Jackal over Taiwan: Geosat CEO clears the air on drone scandal

Samuel Howarth, DIGITIMES Asia, Taipei 0

Credit: AFP, Unsplash

Geosat's CEO Max Lo talks to DIGITIMES Asia about the Jackal controversy, cooperation with NATO, and why Hong Kong films are getting rubbish.

When Digitimes (DT) spoke to Lo, the dust had hardly settled following the eyebrow-raising discovery that Geosat Aerospace & Technology Inc, the premium drone contractor to Taiwan's military was using motors from the Chinese drone company T-Motor. DIGITIMES Asia revealed that T-Motor helps build drones for China's People's Liberation Army (PLA).

DT wanted to understand how parts from a Chinese military company ended up in the drones of "Taiwan's National Drone Team" and the extent of Geosat's purchases in T-Motor, a company that supports research and development for the PLA. Lo offered his side of the story and introduced Geosat, whose drones will likely be the first line of defense against a potential PLA assault on Taiwan.

"This is all just a big misunderstanding"

When asked about the presence of PLA-linked drone parts in the company's Jackal Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV), Lo replied, "This is all a big misunderstanding." Media reports distorted the company's intentions, he added.

Lo said that because Geosat is the exclusive contractor to Taiwan's military, people worried that Taiwan's military was equipped with "red," which is to say CCP-linked, tech. "This is not the case," Lo claimed.

The drone in question is the Jackal. Geosat acquired the right to manufacture the Jackal domestically following a Transfer of Technology (ToT) agreement with Flyby and plans to supply it to Taiwan's military in 2025.

Lo said Geosat has been making drones for Taiwan's Army and Navy for the last two years. "We can do this with 100% no China parts," he added.

The drone shown to Taiwan's President-Elect Lai Ching-te was not "no China parts" however. It was equipped with at least eight motors manufactured by a PLA contractor.

Lo said the drone presented to Taiwan's next head of state was merely an example. It was made together in partnership with the UK and Turkey he added.

Lo said the drone was equipped with eight T-Motor motors. The total cost of eight V10-KV160 motors would be US$2952, according to T-Motor's website.

T-Motor is a very good company, Lo said. It's pretty big, he added.

T-Motor's friends in the PLA

DT discovered that T-Motor and its CEO Wu Min had deep connections with China's PLA. DT wanted to know how much Geosat's Lo knew about T-Motor and its CEO's involvement in and support of China's military-industrial complex.

Digitimes asked Lo whether he knew Wu and T-Motor were closely connected to PLA drone research. DT asked if he knew of the CEO's connection to Dr Quan Quan, one of the PLA's leading military drone researchers.

"Of course, we knew," said Lo. "We're very aware of the company's background," he added.

Obey

Lo said if you remove the ideological differences, Wu and others like DJI's boss Frank Wang are excellent scientists and businessmen. Under the communist system, they have no free will, he added.

They have to obey the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), said Lo. Take DJI for example, he added.

DJI originally made drones for recreational purposes, said Lo. However, the company had to let the CCP put back doors in its hardware, he added.

If DJI did not cooperate with the CCP then it would have been shut down, said Lo. It's the same with Jack Ma's Ant Group, he added.

If Chinese tech companies want to survive, they need to get the green light from China's ruling CCP, Lo said. When the Party comes calling, you have to obey, Lo explained.

Industry capture

Tech companies are often backed by China's military, said Lo. China's defense industry invests huge amounts of money in these companies, he added.

The cash the CCP's military-industrial complex provides is not just used to establish partnerships between the defense industry and the private sector, Lo said. It is used to capture it, he added.

This is how China uses dual-use technology, said Lo. All of China's major industrial endeavors have a military purpose.

The People's Republic of China regards Taiwan as a rogue province and denies its sovereignty. China routinely threatens to attack Taiwan.

The PLA regularly uses drones to put pressure on Taiwan's government and to threaten the country and its people. Newsweek reported that t 1,709 Chinese warplanes were tracked entering Taiwan's air defense identification zone last year.

The Lo-down on those PLA parts

Lo said the Chinese motors in the Jackal were a remanent from less geopolitically tense times. However, Geosat is committed to decoupling its supply chain from China, he added.

Low used the Mandarin expression "de-redding." It means kicking the CCP out of supply Chains.

"Everyone knows that the drone industry was founded on Chinese parts," said Lo. "The global drone supply chain was built on 4000 companies based in China's Shenzhen," he added.

"The Chinese government offers massive subsidies to the country's drone industry." This made China's drones and drone parts cheap, so everyone bought them, he said."

Lo said China wants to make other countries dependent on its technology. By the time you want to rid yourself of Chinese tech it's already too late, he added.

"We can no longer use Chinese parts because of the geopolitical reality of a new cold war," Lo explained. Nobody wants to use China's parts anymore because if hostilities break out then Beijing will close off its supply chain, he added.

Lo said he told President-Elect Lai that Taiwan and its democratic allies are trying to replace Chinese parts with non-China parts. "This is not just an ideal, but something we're actually doing," he added.

Lo said Taiwan's allies want Taiwan to play a role in the movement to decouple from China's supply chain. Lo said Taiwan can use its manufacturing capacity to lower drone-making costs enough to price China out of the drone supply chain.

Taiwan's supply chain shield

Lo said everyone has heard about Taiwan's silicon shield. Lo said he wants to draw on Taiwan's manufacturing capacity and expertise in UAV and anti-UAV technology to establish a supply chain to help protect Taiwan from attack.

Taiwan's president coined the phrase silicon shied in a 2021 Foreign Affairs article to describe how Taiwan's semiconductor industry dominance serves as a deterrent against PRC attacks. "Our semiconductor industry is especially significant: a 'silicon shield' that allows Taiwan to protect itself and others from aggressive attempts by authoritarian regimes to disrupt global supply chains," she said.

Quid pro NATO

Lo said he wants Taiwan to become an indispensable supply chain partner in drone technology to its international partners such as the US and NATO. Interoperability between democratic allies is the key to building drone supply chains, he added.

Taiwan and Geosat can develop its relations with NATO, Lo said. Taiwan isn't a member of the UN but Nato is facing new challenges he added.

All the bad guys are coming together, said Lo. An alliance between China, Iran, North Korea, and Russia is a threat to world peace Lo added.

Faced with this threat, NATO is looking for strategic partners in Asia. Japan is not originally part of NATO the threat posed by Russia has brought them closer, he added.

As drones become increasingly important in warfare, interoperability between allies becomes essential, Lo said. This way, democratic allies can share parts.

Taiwan is not a member of NATO. However, if Taiwan is a crucial supplier of the drones and the drone components that NATO needs, then it will protect Taiwan.

Taiwan's advantages in drone technology could help protect it from attack, said Lo. If Taiwan is producing high-tech chips for drones and AI recognition technology, then NATO would assist Taiwan, and tell China to behave itself, he added.

Lo told me he was about to take a business trip to Japan. DT asked if Geosat was planning on inking any deals during the trip.

Lo's response was economical. "What I can tell you is that Japan and the US are important trading partners for Taiwan," he said.

Geosat teaches Taiwan's military how to drone

Geosat recently announced it won an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Flight Operator Training Course contract with Taiwan's Ministry of Defense. Lo told DT how the program works.

At the end of the day a drone is an aircraft, Lo said. Since Taiwan's airspace is shared by the military and civil society alike, everyone needs to know how to operate safely without causing an accident, he added.

Geosat will provide a wide-ranging training course, Lo explained. The company will show the military how to perform pre-take-off and post-landing checks on the drones to ensure their safe operation and maintenance.

Lo said Geosat has the most drone instructors and examiners for drone piloting in Taiwan. Lo said Geosat's training is not limited to the military but includes other civil and government organizations too.

Lo said he wants to develop resources in Taiwan's drone ecosystem and the ability of the country and military to mobilize civilian resources when necessary. Lo said Taiwan's mobilization of civilian resources is something that Taiwan's army can improve on.

Lo the social engineer

Lo said he is an engineer by trade, however, in his mission to cultivate the Taiwanese army's ability to mobilize society he sees himself as a kind of social engineer too, he said. Lo revealed that he took part in the student movements in Taiwan in the 1980s and this informs how he sees his role in the development of Taiwan's drone and aerospace industry.

UDN reported that Lo participated in Taiwan's Wild Lily student movement in March 1990. The movement demanded the direct election of Taiwan's president and vice president, as well as new popular elections for all representatives in the National Assembly.

If we want to purge China from supply chains, we need to manufacture alternatives that are better and cheaper than what China has to offer, said Lo. It's just like in the Cold War with the US and Russia racing each other for an advantage, he added.

Lo noted that this intense competition has resulted in significant technological progress. He said that the internet was a by-product of the space race.

"Hong Kong movies are rubbish"

Lo noted that behind the geopolitical power struggle and politics, there are human beings. Lo said when he studied in the US he had many Chinese classmates.

On a personal level we are all the same, said Lo. They're good people who are passionate about technology, but they are forced to obey the CCP.

It's just like Hong Kong, said Lo. Hong Kong is basically dead now and their films are getting rubbish, he added.

The CCP doesn't allow imagination, or a second opinion, said Lo. Its approach to technology is a step backward he added.

Lo said Taiwan's imaginative edge was something that set it apart from China, and what will keep the country one step ahead of Beijing in the tech race. Taiwan's freedom of imagination is proof that Taiwan's choice to follow the path of democracy is the right one," he added.

"This isn't a question of one-upmanship," Lo said. "It's Taiwan's basic advantage and a fundamental philosophical difference in China and Taiwan's approach to science," he added.

Fried drone anyone?

Moving forward, Lo said the first island chain will play an important role in countering China's UAVs. Lo hopes for greater cooperation between Taiwan and Japan on microwave counter UAV systems, he added.

We need to be able to detect and jam China's drone swarm, so they fall out of the sky, he added. Lo hopes to find front-end partners together with Geosat and Taiwan to build its anti-drone defense system, he added.