Source Sydney Morning Herald

SYDNEY, Australia--A Chinese Navy vessel aimed a military-grade laser at an RAAF P8 Poseidon aircraft while sailing through Australia’s Exclusive Economic Zone, potentially risking the lives of up to 10 defence force members, according to the Defence Department.

The extraordinary action was taken by a Luyang-class guided missile destroyer at 12.35am last Thursday as it sailed through the Arafura Sea, which is between the Northern Territory and Papua.

The guided missile destroyer, which is armed with surface-to-air missiles, guns and anti-submarine torpedoes, was accompanied by a Yuzhao-class amphibious transport dock. Both are believed to contain extensive surveillance capabilities. A military-grade laser can be used to blind a pilot as well as disrupt or damage equipment and instruments on board an aircraft.

An image of the moment the laser was aimed at the airplane was captured by HMAS Arunta, a long-range Anzac Class frigate, which can conduct air defence, surface and undersea warfare and surveillance.

In a statement released on Saturday evening, the Defence Department said it had “detected a laser illuminating the aircraft while in flight over Australia’s northern approaches”.

“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.

“We strongly condemn unprofessional and unsafe military conduct. These actions could have endangered the safety and lives of the ADF personnel.

“Such actions are not in keeping with the standards we expect of professional militaries. The vessel, in company with another People’s Liberation Army-Navy ship, was sailing east through the Arafura Sea at the time of the incident.”

The Chinese vessels were subsequently tracked by the HMAS Launceston, an Armidale-class patrol boat used for immigration, customs and drug law enforcement operations, as they sailed through the Torres Strait and on to the Coral Sea.

The incident comes after a week of fierce political debate over Australia-China relations in which Prime Minister Scott Morrison accused Anthony Albanese of being the “Chinese government’s pick at this election” while also questioning the Opposition Leader’s national security credentials ahead of the looming election – claims forcefully rejected by Mr Albanese.

The attacks drew a fierce response from the national security establishment, with former Defence secretary Dennis Richardson criticising the creation of “artificial partisan differences” as not in the national interest, while ASIO director-general Mike Burgess raised concern about the politicisation of national security.

Rory Medcalf, the head of the Australian National University’s National Security College, said the aiming of the laser was “dangerous and unacceptable” and that “this is happening in our backyard, not in a backyard that China can remotely claim to be its own”.

“This emphasises the strategic logic of the Pacific step-up and the need for our military to be vigilant right around our coastline. It also points to a new level of recklessness in China’s military behaviour in our backyard.”

Malcolm Davis, a senior analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, said the aiming of the laser was “a hostile act, they are firing with intent to do harm to the air crew”.

“If it hits the eyes of the air crew it could permanently blind them and therefore it is a hostile act.

“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?”

Dr Davis said the incident raised the prospect of a new pressure campaign from China, targeting Australia, and said the federal government should complain to the Chinese embassy in Canberra.

At the same time tensions in Europe are reaching breaking point as US President Joe Biden said he was convinced Russia, a key ally of China, was on the brink of invading Ukraine.

This is not the first time the Chinese military has used lasers to target another country’s military aircraft.

In 2018 US aircraft operating out of a base in Djibouti, on the Horn of Africa, were targeted by lasers in several incidents that slightly injured two airmen.

And in December 2019 the ABC reported that hand-held lasers used by Chinese maritime militia had been used against ADF military helicopters operating in the South China Sea.

At the time, the Defence Department drew a distinction between low-strength lasers used by fishing boats and more powerful military-grade laser devices employed by the military.

“Australia would view reports of the more powerful military-grade laser devices being used against civilian and military vessels as deeply concerning and potentially dangerous,” the Department said at the time.

In one of the images released by the Defence Department, the Chinese amphibious transport dock is clearly visible from the Australian mainland as it passes through the Torres Strait and on to the Coral Sea.

Chinese naval vessels have travelled through Australia’s Exclusive Economic Zone before and doing so is not illegal. However, the use of the military-grade laser on Australian military aircraft is thought to be unprecedented and has alarmed Defence.