Chinese Laser Attack on U.S. Aircraft Left Out of Pentagon Report

Hostile action not mentioned in bid to promote military exchanges

Chinese President Xi Jinping
Chinese President Xi Jinping / Getty Images

The Pentagon's latest report on the Chinese military fails to mention a laser attack that damaged the eyes of American military aircrews near a Chinese military base in Africa last year in an apparent bid to preserve the controversial military exchange program with Beijing.

The annual report to Congress on military and security developments regarding China mentions a few provocative Chinese military actions, such as a Chinese warship's near-collision with the guided-missile destroyer USS Decatur in the South China Sea last year that defense officials said appeared designed as a PLA navy ramming operation.

The report also notes the decision by the Pentagon to disinvite the PLA from sending naval forces to the Rim of the Pacific international naval exercises in response to China's continued militarization of disputed islands in the South China Sea.

However, there was no mention of the more serious incident involving injury to U.S. military personnel.

The laser attacks took place in late April 2018 and caused eye damage to air crews flying in military aircraft near the PLA's first overseas military base located in Djibouti on the Horn of Africa.

The incident was not disclosed at the time by the Pentagon. Instead the Federal Aviation Administration issued a notice to airmen on April 14, 2018, warning about "multiple lazing events involving a high power laser" near the Chinese base. "Use extreme caution when transiting near this area," the notice stated.

One incident involved two air crew members aboard a C-130 transport that suffered eye injuries after exposure to what was described as "military-grade laser beams" traced to the Chinese base. The base is located a mile from a U.S. military base called Camp Lemonnier that is a major launch point for U.S. military counterterrorism operations in the region.

The laser attacks were confirmed by then-Pentagon Press Secretary Dana White who on May 3, 2018, told reporters there were "less than ten" laser strikes against the aircrews. "These are very serious incidents. There have been two minor injuries. This activity poses a threat to our airmen," White said at the time and added that formal protests were lodged with Beijing and that the Pentagon urged China to investigate.

Firing a military-grade laser at military aircraft normally is considered a hostile action. However, the Pentagon and the larger Trump administration took no action in response. The inaction has raised concerns among some officials that the attacks may be repeated in the future.

China has promoted for export at international arms shows several types of laser guns. They include the BBQ-905 Laser Dazzler Weapon, the WJG-2002 Laser Gun, the PY132A Blinding Laser Weapon, and the PY131A Blinding Laser Weapon.

The type of laser used against the U.S. aircrews was not identified by U.S. officials although non-government military experts have speculated that the laser was a vehicle mounted laser weapon.

When questioned about the incident weeks after the announcement, a Pentagon spokesman said to contact the State Department which was handling the U.S. response. The State Department however had no comment.

Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Dave Eastburn had no immediate comment when asked why the laser incident was not mentioned in the report.

The Chinese government rejected U.S. protests and the Pentagon's demand for an investigation of the laser incidents dismissing the U.S. complaint as a "groundless" accusation.

In October, White House National Security Adviser John Bolton warned China against provocative military activities. Commenting on the harassment of the Decatur, Bolton said the threatening maneuver was unacceptable.

Navy commanders have rules of engagement that allow them to defend their ships, he said. "We will not tolerate threats to American service members. We're determined to keep international sea lanes open. This is something the Chinese need to understand. Their behavior has been unnecessarily provocative for far too long."

The report, known as the China military power report, stated that this year's edition was streamlined to focus on military exchanges as one of four major topics. Others are China's military strategy, efforts by China to prepare for conflicts near its borders, and Chinese defense spending.

The omission appears linked to preventing a disruption of a program of military exchanges that has been underway for more than two decades designed to try and build trust between the two militaries.

Military exchanges between China and the United States were curtailed by Congress in a 2000 law that prohibits any interactions that would benefit China's military capabilities.

The law was passed after China learned the vulnerabilities for striking U.S. aircraft carriers during one visit. China later was observed purchasing wake-homing torpedoes from Russia that officials believe are intended for use against carriers.

The section of the Pentagon report on military exchanges states that military contacts "promote sustained and substantive dialogue to reduce risk."

The 2018 plan for military contacts focused on encouraging China to act in support of free and open international order, promoting risk reduction, and deconflicting operations of U.S. and Chinese forces operating near each other.

However, as the laser incident, the Decatur near-collision, and other continued provocative military activities show, more than two decades of military exchanges have shown little progress in building trust or reducing risk.

The report also cited the Pentagon's national defense strategy that says military interaction will set U.S.-China military relations on a path of transparency and non-aggression.

Former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis visited Beijing in June 2018 as part of the military exchange program. The retired Marine Corps general's visit was overshadowed by a threatening public statement by Chinese President Xi Jinping after meeting Mattis.

Xi vowed that China would not "give up one inch" of Chinese territory amid discussions of China's attempts to control the waters of the South China Sea and U.S. arms sales to Taiwan.

The Pentagon plans to send a senior military or defense leader to China this year and will host a visit by a Chinese defense or military official, the report said. Navy ship visits by both navies to U.S. and Chinese ports are also planned, along with several other series of talks.

Richard Fisher, a China military affairs expert, said the annual reports have generally improved under Trump but also reflect the administration's penchant for describing China as an "adversary," rather than an "enemy."

"A trade agreement or even arms control may be possible with an ‘adversary,' whereas they are irrelevant for an ‘enemy,'" said Fisher, a senior fellow with the International Assessment and Strategy Center.

"But inasmuch as the administration is increasingly willing to call out China's genocidal behavior against its own Muslims and its resource support for dictatorship in Latin America, the day is fast approaching when it must be acknowledged that China is in fact the enemy of all democracies and is struggling for global domination, not just Asian regional preeminence."