The State Department has protested the potentially dangerous firing of a “weapons-grade” laser by a Chinese warship last month against a Navy P-8 jet over the Pacific near Guam, according to U.S. officials. The Feb. 17 incident involved a high-powered laser deployed on a People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) guided-missile destroyer in a manner the Pacific Fleet described called “unsafe and unprofessional.”
However, the Pacific Fleet statement, issued 10 days after the incident, stopped short of condemning the action.
Instead, the Navy appears to be playing down the incident in order to avoid upsetting military relations with Beijing.
Using a laser to illuminate a military aircraft could be taken as a hostile act and thus could have resulted in a military response. The illumination, that could have been from a laser range finder or other targeting gear, took place in an area around 380 miles west of Guam.
“The PRC navy destroyer’s actions were unsafe and unprofessional,” the Pacific Fleet said. “Additionally, these acts violate the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES), a multilateral agreement reached at the 2014 Western Pacific Naval Symposium to reduce the chance of an incident at sea.”
The PLAN warship also violated a U.S.-China memorandum of understanding on rules for safe air and maritime encounters, the statement said. The Navy plans to raise the matter in a U.S.-China consultative group in the coming weeks, a U.S. official said.
A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman said last week he was unaware of the incident, and referred questions to the Chinese military. A Chinese military spokesman made no mention of the incident during a press briefing for reporters Feb. 28.
It was the second time in two years that U.S. military aircraft were the target of lasers fired by the Chinese military. In early 2018, U.S. C-130 aircraft flying near the Horn of Africa were involved in multiple lazing incidents involving a high-power laser fired from inside the PLA’s military base at Djibouti, injuring the eyes of two U.S. military air crew members. A diplomatic protest was also lodged with the Chinese over that incident.
Unlike 2018, no pilots or aircraft crew were injured in the incident last month. The invisible light laser was detected by an on-board sensor inside the P-8, the Navy’s newest anti-submarine warfare aircraft.
The Navy announcement Feb. 27 came a day after an official at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing lodged a formal protest with the Chinese Foreign Ministry, U.S. officials told The Washington Times. The sea service has placed a high priority on its military-to-military exchange program with China, with the idea of seeking to build trust with the China’s armed forces.
The failure to condemn the action or to take retaliatory steps is likely to further embolden the PLA, analysts say. Rick Fisher, a research fellow with the International Assessment and Strategy Center, warned that more PLA provocations may be coming.
“China will do more to harm U.S. Navy ships conducting freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea and against U.S. bombers that will be responding to China’s coercive use of its H-6K bombers against Taiwan,” Mr. Fischer said.
Mr. Fisher said the Feb. 17 incident also revealed that, first, the Chinese government does not abide by agreements that limit its power, in this case the 2014 CUES, he said.
“Second, this demonstrates that the United States must prepare more rapidly for the era of what the Chinese call ‘light wars’ — the pervasive use of more powerful energy weapons,” he said.
Navy should rapidly deploy small, 300 kilowatt electric laser pods on all P-8s, he said.
Retired Navy Capt. Jim Fanell said the action by the Chinese military went beyond unsafe and unprofessional.
“This act was not only ‘unsafe and unprofessional,’ but threatened the lives of U.S. Navy aircrew and aircraft,” Capt. Fanell said.
“Just because there are no bullets flying, the fact remains the lasing of aircraft in flight is just as if they were shooting ammunition at our aircraft, and could result in a catastrophic crash of our aircraft and the death of our Navy air crews,” he said.
Noting the earlier Djibouti incident, Capt. Fanell said the latest action is part of a “worrisome trend, one where the Chinese Communist Party continues to demonstrate [its] antipathy towards the United States.”
“One hopes the commanders of the Pacific Fleet and Indo-Pacific Command will have instructed all U.S. military combatants that they are authorized to use force to disrupt or degrade any further PRC lazing actions against Pacific Fleet forces,” he said. “These actions border on ‘acts of war.’ Beijing must understand the United States will never accept this bullying.”
Retired Navy Rear Adm. Tom Jurkowsky said the Chinese action is troubling.
“This action by the Chinese should be viewed with deep concern,” said Adm. Jurkowsky, a former chief of Navy information.
The use of a laser against the American aircraft “reflects China’s willingness to deviate from or challenge international rules-based order, providing them any form of advantage,” he said.
The Navy identified the Chinese warship as PLAN Destroyer 161.
That hull number corresponds to one of the newest warships, a Luyang III destroyer commissioned in January of 2019.
Luyang III has been dubbed the “Chinese Aegis” because like U.S. Aegis battle management-equipped warships it is powered by a large radar.
China stole Aegis technology from the United States in the 1990s and 2000s and the Luyang III is among those warships outfitted with advanced American-origin warfighting technology.
A PLA colonel, in an opinion article published in The New York Times on Monday, stated that even strategic enemies can build trust.
“Forget the trade war. If the gravest challenge of the 21st century is finding ways that China and the United States can coexist competitively, the real danger is that an unexpected incident might trigger a conflict that neither side has anticipated or could possibly control,” said PLA Col. Zhou Bo. “The likeliest potential flash point is the South China Sea.”
He did not mention the Feb. 17 laser incident.
Col. Zhou did mention that the most serious recent showdown was the near collision between a Chinese warship and Navy destroyer in the South China Sea in 2018.