Navy Instagram Tells China “You Don’t Want To Play Laser Tag With Us” After Pacific Incident

The U.S. Navy’s official Instagram account has issued a curious warning of sorts informing the Chinese military that it doesn’t want to “play laser tag” with it in the future. This comes a day after reports emerged that a People’s Liberation Army Navy destroyer had aimed a laser beam at a Navy P-8A Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft flying in the Philippine Sea earlier this month.

The Navy has now confirmed that the incident in the South China Sea took place on Feb. 17, 2020, and that it involved a P-8A from Patrol Squadron 45 (VP-45), which is headquartered at Naval Air Station Jacksonville in Florida. This particular aircraft is forward-deployed to Okinawa, Japan, and was flying approximately 380 miles west of Guam when it encountered the Chinese warship. The Navy did not identify the ship in its press release, but other reports say that it was most likely the destroyer Hohhot, which carries the pennant number 161 and is the newest addition to the Type 052D Luyang III class. The service said that no one was injured in the incident, but that it was assessing the Poseidon for potential damage.

“#ICYMI [in case you missed it] The Chinese Navy recently pointed a laser in an unsafe and unprofessional manner at a #USNavy P-8A flying in airspace above international waters,” the Navy’s Instagram post adds. “These acts violate the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea, a multilateral agreement reached at the 2014 Western Pacific Naval Symposium to reduce the chance of an incident at sea.”

An aerial picture of Woody Island, one of China’s largest island outposts in the South China Sea, with the text “Meanwhile, in the South China Sea” and an inset showing what appears to be a laser light show or lasers accompanying a music concert, accompanied the social media post. The laser image is a free “rave” computer desktop background available online.

Instagram Screencap

It’s important to remember that the Navy has said that a destroyer lased the P-8A, not a ground-based system on one of China’s island outposts. Woody Island is also more than 2,000 miles, and across the Philippines, west of Guam, reinforcing that this image is not directly related to the actual incident in any way.

One of Patrol Squadron 45’s (VP-45) P-8A Poseidon patrol planes in Thailand for Exercise Cobra Gold on Feb. 26, 2020., USN

The first part of the Instagram post sounds like an implied threat, but there’s no indication of what the Navy might be prepared to do in response to future laser incidents. The service is increasingly installing laser weapon systems of its own, including dazzlers to blind or confuse enemy sensors or optical guidance systems, on various types of ships, which could lead to “laser tag” in the future.

Despite the otherwise light-hearted nature of the social media post, these attacks can be potentially very serious. The Navy said that the laser employed in this recent incident with the P-8A in the Philippine Sea was also not even visible to the naked eye and was only seen through one of the aircraft’s sensors.

Depending on the power of the laser in question, it could temporarily blind an aircraft’s crew or cause permanent eye damage, as well as cause damage to optical sensors. Even temporary blindness or partial blindness could be very disorienting and dangerous for pilots. The U.S. military says a Chinese laser fired from the country’s outpost in the East African nation of Djibouti did injure the crew of a U.S. Air Force C-130 cargo aircraft during another incident in 2018.

As the Instagram post implies, encounters with Chinese lasers have also become extremely common in hotly contested South China Sea and not just for the U.S. military. The Australian military reported being in the receiving end of laser incidents on multiple occasions last year. Australian authorities said that Chinese fishing boats, possibly members of the country’s quasi-military Maritime Militia, also known as the “Little Blue Men,” rather than warships like the Hohhot were responsible.

The Type 052D Luyang III class destroyer Hohhot., China Military Online

The Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea, or CUES, which 21 countries have agreed to abide by, including China and the United States, expressly prohibits this kind of activity. Unfortunately, it is not a legally-binding treaty and there are no hard enforcement mechanisms for violations. The Pentagon and the Chinese Ministry of Defense had also previously signed a memorandum of understanding meant to prevent these kinds of altercations. 

Unfortunately, China has taken an increasingly aggressive stance when it comes to asserting its expansive territorial claims over the South China Sea, which are not internationally recognized, since CUES came into effect in 2014. Beyond lasers, U.S. military aircraft in the region have also been in the receiving end of electronic warfare attacks and aggressive intercepts over the years. 

Potentially dangerous encounters haven’t been limited to aircraft, either. In September 2018, the People’s Liberation Army Navy’s Type 052C Luyang II class destroyer Lanzhou

almost collided with the Navy’s Arleigh Burke class destroyer USS Decatur in a particularly dangerous incident at sea.

This latest laser incident in the Philippine Sea comes as the Navy continues to conduct so-called Freedom of Navigation Patrols (FONOPS) close to Chinese island outposts in the region to challenge Beijing’s territorial claims. American warships and aircraft have also been performing similar missions through the increasingly tense Strait of Taiwan

While the Navy may be tired of ‘playing games’ with its Chinese counterparts in the region, as long as the United States and China continue to challenge each other’s very presence, it seems likely that this kind of “laser tag,” among other things, will continue.

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