The Pentagon claimed last Thursday that two U.S. pilots had been injured as a result of Chinese nationals shining military grade laser pointers into their eyes as they came in to land at the U.S. base in Djibouti.
The injuries followed claims that a number of flights near the east African base had been affected by lasers, and U.S. officials have now issued a formal diplomatic complaint demanding Beijing investigates.
But the Chinese Foreign Ministry is denying any involvement, releasing a statement Friday that said the U.S. allegations were untrue, adding that it had rejected the allegations through official channels.
“China has always complied with international law and the laws of the host country,” the ministry said in a statement.
Located at Djibouti international airport, the U.S. military’s Camp Lemmonier base is its only permanent facility in Africa. It is used largely for counterterrorism operations in East Africa and Yemen. Last year China opened a naval base in Djibouti, only a few miles from the U.S. facility, marking the first overseas base for Beijing’s rapidly growing military.
IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly, citing “multiple intelligence sources”, reported in April that the Chinese navy is suspected of operating a high-power lasing weapon at the base in Djibouti or on a ship offshore. “The use of lasers to temporarily blind pilots has increased over the years and dates back to the cold war when U.S. Navy pilots were periodically attacked by lasers emanating from Soviet naval vessels and spy trawlers,” Jane’s said.
Chinese military observers tried to shift any blame on Wednesday telling the South China Morning Post that the lasers might have been used to scare off birds near the airfield or disrupt possible spy drones, rather than targeting foreign pilots—pointing out that China is a signatory to the Protocol on Blinding Laser Weapons, which bans the use of lasers that cause permanent blindness.
“The Chinese and U.S. bases in Djibouti are really close, so one could disturb the other if the two sides don’t have a proper communication mechanism,” said Zhou Chenming, a Beijing-based military analyst.
The Chinese base in Djibouti is, in fact, just a few miles from of Camp Lemonnier but the Pentagon does not appear to be buying the Chinese story. And they have every right to be concerned as to the potential danger this poses to American aviators. Military-grade laser beams, occasionally known as “dazzlers,” omit a powerful beam of light that can travel long distances and be used to illuminate aircraft cockpits, temporarily blinding pilots.
Pentagon sources say they believe the Chinese use similar lasers to interfere with U.S. aircraft in the South China Sea. In 2015, the PLA Daily noted that “China has been updating its home-made blinding laser weapons in recent years to meet the needs of different combat operations.”
The close proximity of the Chinese base has not escaped notice of U.S. counterintelligence either. While speaking to Congress in March 2018, Gen. Thomas Waldhauser, the head of U.S. Africa Command Commander noted “We are taking significant steps on the counterintelligence side so that we have all the defenses that we need there, there is no doubt about that.” Djibouti holds a lot of importance for DoD forces given its critically strategic location to countries like Somalia and Yemen.
Featured Image Courtesy of D-Kuru [CC BY-SA 3.0], from Wikimedia Commons