Australia’s ABC reports that Australian military helicopters were targeted by lasers in the South China Sea. The laser attacks apparently came from China’s maritime militia.
Based on Hainan Island, the maritime militia is a key part of China’s naval forces. Fitted out as fishing vessels, maritime militia boats use tactics that fall just short of combat to press China’s interests; they will drive off fishermen from neighboring countries as part of the effort to establish China’s claim that nearly all of the South China Sea is sovereign Chinese territory. If challenged, they can get support from either China’s Coast Guard or its Navy.
ABC Defense correspondent Andrew Greene reported that Australian military helicopters were targeted by lasers as Australian warships made two recent transits of the South China Sea.
The ships conducted an exercise called Indo-Pacific Endeavour 2019 that included a port call at Vietnam’s Cam Ranh Bay. Earlier, Greene reported that the Australian vessels were closely followed by the Chinese military, but quoted Air Commodore Richard Owen as saying that the interactions were “professional” and “friendly”.
Laser attacks are neither, of course, but, if they came from the maritime militia, that would give China’s military a way to deny responsibility. Greene cited sources who said that the helicopters were targeted by lasers at night, forcing the pilots to return to their ship for medical check-ups.
There have been similar incidents involving U.S. aircraft, both in the Pacific and off the coast of Djibouti on the Horn of Africa, where both China and the U.S. have military bases.
China denied any involvement.