A dangerous encounter occurred on Feb. 17 when a Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy destroyer targeted a U.S. Navy P-8A Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft with a high powered laser.
The laser, which was not visible to the naked eye, was caught by a sensor aboard the P-8A, according to a U.S. Pacific Fleet press release Thursday evening. The incident occurred over international waters around 380 miles west of Guam.
The U.S. Pacific Fleet said the Chinese destroyer’s actions violated multiple accords, including Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES), the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the U.S. Department of Defense and the Chinese defense ministry regarding ships and aircraft encounters at sea. The U.S. Navy further characterized the behavior as “unsafe and unprofessional.”
Weapons-grade lasers have the potential to harm flight crews and damage ship and aircraft systems. CUES was established in 2014 to help reduce the potential for dangerous incidents at sea and specifically addresses the use of lasers that can harm personal or damage equipment.
The P-8A in question is assigned to the VP-45 patrol squadron stationed out of Jacksonville, Fla. and forward deployed to Kadena Air Force Base in Okinawa, Japan. The squadron conducts routine maritime patrols and reconnaissance for the U.S. 7th fleet, which forms part of the overall U.S. Pacific fleet.
“U.S Navy aircraft routinely fly in the Philippine Sea and have done so for many years,” the U.S. Pacific Fleet continued. “U.S. Navy aircraft and ships will continue to fly, sail and operate anywhere international law allows.”
U.S. military aircraft have previously sustained Chinese laser attacks. In 2018, U.S. pilots flying in and out of airbases in the African country Djibouti sustained minor injuries they attributed to targeting by Chinese lasers. U.S. aircraft in the Pacific also dealt with a series of at least 20 Chinese laser attacks in a span of just a few months in 2018 and several pilots have suffered minor eye injuries as a result.
China has continued to expand its naval presence in the Pacific and the South China Sea in particular in recent years. China has laid claim to many disputed territories in the Pacific and has increasingly put in place anti-aircraft and anti-ship missile systems as well as radar jamming equipment as part of their overall anti-access area denial strategy aimed at hindering the U.S. Navy’s ability to access the disputed regions of the Pacific.
Chinese and U.S. Navy have also come in increasing contact as the U.S. has conducted “freedom of navigation” operations aimed at challenging Chinese territorial claims over disputed islands in the Pacific.