US Military Says Chinese Lasers Injured Pilots Flying A C-130 Near Its Base in Djibouti

The incidents could reflect growing tensions between the two countries over military activities in the immensely strategic East African country.

Chinese internet

The U.S. government has now publicly accused Chinese personnel of dangerous laser activity near the American base at Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti, which it says has physically harmed the pilot and co-pilot of a U.S. Air Force C-130 Hercules. Though it may only be a nuisance now, it could represent a desire on the part of China's forces to challenge the United States' ability to freely operate in and around the vital region hub.

On May 3, 2018, Dana White, the Pentagon’s chief spokesperson, said lasers from China's base in the East African country had harassed American aviators on between two and 10 occasions, resulting in two, unspecified minor injuries to the C-130 crew. She also indicated that there had been an increase in these activities recently, prompting American officials to make a formal complaint. The issue had prompted the U.S. military to issue a formal warning to its own aircrews in April 2018, which did not specifically name who was responsible.

“I’d have to ask you [to] ask the Chinese about the motivation," White said. "But it’s serious, we take it seriously, and that’s why we demarched them.”

In 2017, China officially began operations at its own base in Djibouti, which it describes as a logistics hub, but hosts a large marine contingent with armored vehicles and other heavy weapons. The Chinese government first announced plans to build the facilities, which are situated less than a mile from their American counterparts in the country, in 2015. 

The video below shows Chinese troops stationed at its base in Djibouti conducting live-fire exercises in the country.

The U.S. military has been running operations from Camp Lemonnier since 2003 and it is the only formal base the United States says it has in Africa. It has since served as an important hub for air operations into Somalia and Yemen, as well as vital stop-over point for American forces transiting through the area.

It appears the Pentagon is, at least for the time being, leaving the possibility open that individual Chinese personnel might have been acting independently in Djibouti and that the laser harassment is not a matter of actual policy. However, U.S. Air Force Major Sheryll Klinkel, a Pentagon spokesperson, separately told reporters that the device used to attack the crew of the C-130 was clearly "military grade."

Both China and the United States have consented to the Protocol on Blinding Laser Weapons, a 1995 addition to the 1980 Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons, which bans the use of lasers with a specific “combat function” to cause “permanent blindness.” At the same time, both countries have made it clear that they do not believe that ostensibly "non-lethal," lower-power laser “dazzlers” do not violate this agreement as the impairment is not "permanent." 

The video below shows U.S. Marines in Iraq in 2008 training to use a green-light laser "dazzler" to help stop suspicious vehicles.

The treaty specifically exempts laser-based defensive systems that blind the seeker heads on incoming missiles or disrupt other sensors systems. "Blinding as an incidental or collateral effect of the legitimate military employment of laser systems, including laser systems used against optical equipment, is not covered by the prohibition of this  Protocol,” it adds.

As of 2015, Chinese forces had access to at least four different man-portable systems, the BBQ-905, PY131A, PY132A, and the WJG-2002, all of which look like oversized assault rifles or shoulder-fired grenade launchers. The WJG-2002's shape clearly mimics the People's Liberation Army's (PLA) standard QBZ-95 assault rifle, undoubtedly to help conceal the weapon's presence on the battlefield. 

via China Military Online

A Chinese soldier aims a WJG-2002 laser weapon.

"China has been updating its home-made blinding laser weapons in recent years to meet the needs of different combat operations," a report from China Military Online, an official PLA outlet said in 2015, according to an English translation. "Blinding laser weapons are primarily used to blind its targets with laser in short distance, or interfere and damage the laser and night vision equipment, etc."

The exact range and capabilities of these weapons are unclear. But whether the effects are permanent or not, even temporary blindness can be a serious hazard for aviators. Pranksters have caused significant disruptions in the past around commercial airports using readily available laser pointers, which have in turn led to serious criminal charges.

via China Military Online

A PY131A dazzler sits in front of a PY132A.

"When aimed at an aircraft from the ground, the powerful beam of light from a handheld laser can travel more than a mile," the FBI told The Washington Free Beacon in 2015. It can "illuminate a cockpit, disorienting and temporarily blinding pilots."

In April 2018, a U.S. Marine Corps AV-8B Harrier jump jet crashed during an exercise in Djibouti, with the pilot being able to safely eject. One of the Marines CH-53E Super Stallion helicopters also suffered damage in a hard landing. There is nothing to suggest, at present, that either of these incidents were related to the hostile laser activity, though.

There is the possibility that the incidents are unintentional. Earlier in May 2018, the qausi-official Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post reported on the laser issue, but suggested that harassment could have been the result of unrelated attempts by Chinese personnel to scare away birds. Bird strikes are a serious hazard for both military and civil aviation, but shotguns and other traditional firearms firing extremely loud blanks have historically been the weapon of choice to disperse the avian threats.

China Military Online

A member of the People's Liberation Army Navy on board the aircraft carrier Liaoning holds a shotgun, a far more common means of dispersing potentially dangerous birds from the flight line.

The same report also said it was equally likely that the harassment was intended to blind sensors and prevent them from spying on the Chinese base. Not knowing the full extent of the reported injuries or the exact nature of the various incidents, its hard to judge whether or not the crews of the American aircraft were the actual targets.

But there have long been concerns about whether the proximity of the two sites, and the lack of any formal communication between them, could create problems. It was apparent from the beginning that both sides could use the opportunity to try and gather intelligence about the other.

“We’ve never had a base of, let’s just say a peer competitor, as close as this one happens to be, so there’s a lot of learning going on, a lot of growing going on,” U.S. Marine Corps General Thomas Waldhauser, head of U.S. Africa Command, which oversees operations in Djibouti, told Breaking Defense in March 2017. “Yes, there are some very significant operational security concerns.”

We don't know whether or not an intelligence collection or other confrontations have now escalated into a more aggressive exchange between the two parties. However, China clearly sees its presence in Djibouti as an important development in expanding its own ability to project power internationally and it almost certainly sees it as part of a broader challenge to United States interests and influence. 

Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call via AP

U.S. Marine Corps General Thomas Waldhauser speaks to members of Congress in March 2018.

On top of that, China has a long history of challenging the U.S. military's freedom of movement closer to home, especially in the South China Sea. Despite an agreement President Barack Obama's administration struck with Chinese authorities in 2015, the PLA continues to aggressively intercept American aircraft throughout the Pacific in areas China claims as its sovereign territory. The Chinese government has also made a concerted effort to expand its more robust area denial capabilities, particularly in and around the South China Sea, reportedly launching electronic warfare attacks on American aircraft from its man-made outposts in the region and establishing advanced sensor nets, including underwater listening posts, to monitor foreign military activities. 

“U.S. Africa Command views security and access to Djibouti as a top priority,"  Waldhauser told members of Congress in March 2018. "Consequently, we continue to monitor this [Chinese] development to ensure U.S. interests are not deterred.”

It seems that that Chinese may be exploring doing just that with its lasers and overall, it would seem to be in line with China's other increasingly assertive foreign policy decisions. At the same time, unlike their expanding presence in places such as the South China Sea, the blinding lasers run a far greater risk of causing a serious injury, or even a fatality, if they cause a plane or helicopter to crash. 

It remains to be seen how the Chinese will respond now that the U.S. government has formally censured them and whether they will continue with the laser harassment or seek new ways to challenge the United States in Djibouti and elsewhere.

Contact the author: jtrevithickpr@gmail.com