Laser beams force Australian navy pilots out of sky over South China Sea

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laser beams
An Australian Royal Navy MHR-90 helicopter. File photo via Airbus Australia Pacific.

Australian navy helicopter pilots have reported being forced out of the sky by laser beams while flying over the disputed South China Sea.

The Australian Broadcasting Company reported today (Wednesday, May 29) that “informal Chinese militia vessels” are believed to be behind the attacks.

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Defence sources told the broadcaster that helicopters were targeted during night flights, forcing the pilots to temporarily return to their ship for medical check-ups.

Euan Graham, who was onboard the HMAS Canberra on a voyage from Vietnam to Singapore, said the laser beams were pointed from fishing vessels while the Canberra was being trailed by a Chinese warship.

China maintains a maritime militia in the South China Sea composed of fishing vessels equipped to carry out missions that fall just short of combat.

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“Was this startled fishermen reacting to the unexpected? Or was it the sort of coordinated harassment more suggestive of China’s maritime militia? It’s hard to say for sure, but similar incidents have occurred in the western Pacific,” Mr Graham wrote on the website The Strategist.

Mr Graham also said that while bridge-to-bridge communications with the Chinese during the voyage were “courteous”, the Chinese requested the Australians notify them in advance of any corrections to their course. That was something the Australian navy was “not about to concede while exercising its high-seas freedoms,” he wrote.

Australian warships have been on a months-long engagement mission in the Asia Pacific region that concluded this week.

The Australian navy has also conducted joint exercises in the South China Sea with other nations, including the United States and the Philippines.

Last year, Beijing rejected US allegations that Chinese nationals shone military-grade laser beams at American pilots in Djibouti, where China operates a naval base. The Pentagon maintained that two US pilots suffered minor eye injuries as a result of the attack.

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