in Defence / Features

US angered by laser targeting of pilots

Posted 26 November 2018 · Add Comment

US military pilots in Djibouti have reported being targeted by high-powered lasers – apparently from a nearby Chinese base. Alan Dron reports.

Pilots of military aircraft do not expect to have lasers fired at them – except in war.
That, however, has been the case on several occasions in the northeast African state of Djibouti, when aircrew on the landing approach to Camp Lemonnier, the largest US base on the continent, have had lasers dazzling them.
Djibouti, for years a largely overlooked corner of the continent, has become a highly strategic location. Just across the Bab al-Mandeb Strait from Yemen, where a Saudi Arabian-led coalition is fighting Iranian-backed Houthi rebels, the US has for some years been building up its presence there, flying both reconnaissance drones and manned intelligence-gathering aircraft.
In the past few years, however, China has had an increasing presence in the tiny state, pumping in money to support its economic development and increasing its influence – notably with the construction of its first overseas naval and military base that analysts say is large enough to hold a brigade of troops.
China describes it as a logistics base to supply both its naval vessels escorting merchant ships through pirate-ridden waters and its estimated 2,400 troops engaged on African peacekeeping duties.
In late spring, the aircrew of a US C-130 Hercules transport aircraft approaching their base reported being ‘lased’ by military-grade beams, apparently originating from the Chinese base, which lies around six miles (10km) from its US counterpart.
“We had three incidents of pilots reporting lasers inside the cockpit when they were on the approach to our base,” said Lieutenant Commander John Supple, public affairs officer for Africom in Djibouti. “We’ve asked the authorities to put out a notice to airmen (NOTAM) that around a certain spot near the Chinese base, pilots have been reporting lasing.”
While not wishing to accuse anyone, he said, he understood that the US State Department in Washington DC had issued a démarche – a formal diplomatic complaint – to the Chinese embassy over the incidents.
Asked if it was possible that the pilots had seen a beam from a typical laser pen of the sort that has been implicated in many incidents of airliner pilots being dazzled, Supple indicated that this was unlikely.
“We’re not low flying over the Chinese base. The fact that [the beam] makes it up to altitude gives some suggestion that it was high-powered,” he said, indicating that the US was ensuring pilots now had the right protective visors.
The incidents fit a pattern of Chinese behaviour where they continually push boundaries. Some US analysts fear that the Chinese will feel that if the US takes no firmer action than a diplomatic complaint over as direct an action as targeting US military aircraft, that they can act with impunity in future.
The unspoken message to African and other nations will be that if even the US can mount no effective response, then other nations have no chance of affecting Chinese policy in the region.
 

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