Australian navy pilots hit with lasers during South China Sea military exercise | Australia news


Australian navy helicopter pilots have been hit with laser beams from fishing boats suspected of being part of China’s maritime militia during a recent military exercise in the South China Sea.

La Trobe University’s Euan Graham was among academics invited to observe the Indo-Pacific Endeavour 2019 exercise onboard landing helicopter dock HMAS Canberra during its Vietnam to Singapore leg.

He noted interactions between the Royal Australian Navy and People’s Liberation Army Navy were cordial.

“We were followed at a discreet distance by a Chinese warship for most of the transit, both on the way up and back, despite the fact that our route didn’t take us near any feature occupied by Chinese forces or any obviously sensitive areas,” Graham wrote in a piece for the Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s Strategist blog.

Graham said the presence of the trailing escort had no obvious effect on HMAS Canberra’s activities or the pace of flight operations. The army’s Tiger attack helicopters practised night flying and deck landings, he said.

“Some helicopter pilots had lasers pointed at them from passing fishing vessels, temporarily grounding them for precautionary medical reasons,” Graham said.

“Was this startled fishermen reacting to the unexpected? Or was it the sort of coordinated harassment more suggestive of China’s maritime militia? It’s hard to say for sure, but similar incidents have occurred in the western Pacific.”

Last year there were reports US military pilots were hit with lasers in the East China Sea more than 20 times.

The Australian National University maritime law expert Don Rothwell noted this was the first time the Australian military had been the target of lasers.

“The apparent use of lasers in a pseudo-military context is a new development,” Rothwell told the Guardian.

Lasers have the potential to blind pilots which can disrupt their ability to navigate aircraft.

Rothwell said China’s maritime militia fishing boats could number in the thousands and the size of the fleet had increased over the past five years.

“Their sole purpose appears to be disruption,” he said. “We’ve seen the deployment of the Chinese militia to swarm or enclose areas that are subject of Filipino occupation as part of the Philippines territorial claim [in the South China Sea].”

Rothwell said it didn’t matter that the Australian navy ships weren’t near the Chinese artificial islands or within the 12 nautical mile limit because their presence in the South China Sea would attract China’s ire regardless.

“In the minds of China much of the South China Sea is enclosed in what’s called the nine dash line. Any activity that’s within the nine dash line in certain quarters is controversial,” Rothwell said.

“They effectively view the South China Sea as being a Chinese lake enclosed within the nine dash line. Any foreign military activity … [is] seen to be an interference with Chinese sovereignty.”

Indo-Pacific Endeavour is an 11-week, three-ship naval deployment which has visited India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Vietnam for a series of military and humanitarian assistance training exercises with other countries.

Comment about the laser incident has been sought from the defence department.

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