MELBOURNE, Australia — Australia has accused a Chinese ship of illuminating one of its P-8A Poseidon multimission aircraft with a “military grade” laser while it flew over waters north of the Pacific nation.
Australia’s Defence Department said the incident happened after a pair of Chinese military vessels were encountered in the Makassar Strait on Feb. 11 by a Royal Australian Navy frigate and then again in the Arafura Sea by a Royal Australian Air Force P-8A on Feb. 12.
A People’s Liberation Army Navy task group — comprising of the Type 052D guided-missile destroyer Hefei and the Type 071 amphibious landing platform dock Jinggangshan — were detected in the Arafura Sea on five separate occasions by P-8s, Australian patrol vessels and a shore-based Australian military detachment, according to a departmental news release.
It was on the fourth encounter, in the afternoon of Feb. 17, when one of the Chinese ships allegedly used a military-grade laser to illuminate a P-8A. It is unclear what laser device was apparently used, although it could have been an onboard laser designator or a laser rangefinder.
The incident occurred at coordinates -10.0666667, 136.0113888888889, according to Australia, which would place it in the country’s exclusive economic zone 430 miles northeast of the northern Australian city of Darwin and 65 miles from the nation’s coastline.
The PLAN ships were on a roughly easterly course while in the Arafura Sea, transiting through the Torres Strait on the morning of Feb. 18 and subsequently entering the Coral Sea.
Australia’s Defence Department condemned what it called “unprofessional and unsafe military conduct,” while Prime Minister Scott Morrison called the alleged Chinese action “dangerous and reckless for what should be a professional navy.” He called for an investigation into the incident.
While the use of lasers are unlikely to cause physical damage to the aircraft, the intensity of the beam could distract the pilots or cause injury to their eyes.
China has said the PLAN ships maintained “safe, standardized and professional operations, in line with international law and practice.” It also accused the Australian P-8A of “malicious and provocative actions.”
A news release put out by China’s Ministry of National Defense said the P-8A flew “very close” to the PLAN ships, although it admitted the Australian aircraft was not closer than 4 kilometers (2.5 miles) from the ships.
It also said the aircraft, which could be used to hunt submarines and carry out maritime domain awareness missions, dropped sonobuoys near the ships. China also accused Australia of deliberately spreading false information and making false accusations.
China also released photographs of the P-8A as a small speck in the distance and what it said is the sonobuoy dropped by the aircraft.
Australia on Tuesday released more details of the apparent laser encounter, confirming that its P-8As were no closer than 2.5 miles to the Chinese ships. The government said the aircraft was 4.8 miles away from the ships and flying at 1,500 feet when it was hit by the laser. It also confirmed dropping sonobuoys but only after the laser incident, adding that these were dropped well ahead of the ships and posed no safety hazard.
Kevin Noonan, a former sensor operator on U.S. Navy S-3 Viking anti-submarine aircraft, told Defense News that the item in the photo released by China appears to show the float and antenna assembly of a sonobuoy. He added that it would typically not be a hazard unless an attempt was made to retrieve it.
Two years ago, the U.S. also accused the PLAN of firing a laser at one if its Poseidon planes over the Pacific. China denied it, saying the plane had circled at low altitude over its ship despite repeated warnings.
In 2019, Royal Australian Navy helicopter pilots reported being were hit by lasers while exercising in the South China Sea, forcing them to land as a precaution. In 2018, the U.S. issued a formal complaint to the Chinese government over the use of high-grade lasers near the military base in Djibouti that were directed at aircraft and resulted in minor injuries to two American pilots.
Tensions have ratcheted up particularly in the South China Sea, which Beijing claims almost in its entirety, while the U.S. and its allies insist on freedom of navigation and overflight in international waters.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Mike Yeo is the Asia correspondent for Defense News.