Chinese Destroyer Targets Australian Aircraft With High-Power Laser

The destroyer Hefei (foreground) and amphib Jingangshan enter the Coral Sea, February 18 (Australian Defence Force

Published Feb 20, 2022 11:29 PM by The Maritime Executive

The Australian government has lodged  a formal protest with Beijing after a PLA Navy warship used a high-powered laser to illuminate one of the Royal Australian Air Force's maritime patrol planes. 

In the early hours of Thursday morning, a RAAF P-8 Poseidon patrol plane was tracking the destroyer Hefei and the amphib Jingangshan as they transited the Arafura Sea, northeast of Darwin. The Australian frigate HMAS Arunta was shadowing the Chinese deployment, and her crew obtained an image of the moment that Hefei illuminated the Australian P-8 with a high-power laser. 

“The laser was detected as emanating from a People’s Liberation Army Navy vessel. Illumination of the aircraft by the Chinese vessel is a serious safety incident. Acts like this have the potential to endanger lives," said the Australian Defence Department in a statement Saturday. “We strongly condemn unprofessional and unsafe military conduct."

The incident drew a strong response from Australian leaders across the political spectrum. 

“I can see it no other way than an act of intimidation, one that is unprovoked, unwarranted. And Australia will never accept such acts of intimidation,” said Prime Minister Scott Morrison. “I thought it was a reckless and irresponsible act.”

The PLA has used laser illumination against Western aircraft many times before. In 2018, the U.S. Department of Defense reported that personnel at the new Chinese naval base in Djibouti were regularly targeting American aircraft with laser devices. In one incident, two airmen sustained minor eye injuries after they were targeted with a laser device during an approach to Djibouti International Airport. Several incidents have occurred in the South China Sea, including a laser strike on a U.S. Navy P-8 Poseidon in February 2020 and a handheld-laser strike on two Australian helicopters in 2019. 

Dr. Malcolm Davis, a senior analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) told the Sydney Morning Herald that the latest laser strike could have been a calculated decision. 

“Maybe the Chinese are testing us in terms of seeing how we respond. The fact that two Chinese naval vessels are in the Arafura Sea is interesting. The fact that we have a very serious crisis in Europe means maybe the Chinese are trying to put pressure on US allies in the Pacific - so maybe there is a link there?” he said.