‘You Don’t Want to Play Laser Tag With Us,’ US Navy Tells China Over Pacific Incident

March 1, 2020 Updated: March 1, 2020

The U.S. Navy has sent an apparent warning to China that it better stop harassing American service members, following an incident in which a Chinese warship aimed a military-grade laser at a Navy P-8A Poseidon surveillance plane.

“You don’t want to play laser tag with us,” the Navy posted on its official Instagram account on Feb. 28.

The incident happened on Feb. 17 in international airspace over the Pacific Ocean about 400 miles west of Guam, a U.S. territory, according to the military.

“The laser, which was not visible to the naked eye, was captured by a sensor on board the P-8A. Weapons-grade lasers could potentially cause serious harm to aircrew and mariners, as well as ship and aircraft systems,” the Navy said in a Feb. 28 release, calling the incident “unsafe and unprofessional” on the part of the Chinese.

The Navy has also been increasingly arming its vessels with lasers—both destructive ones and so-called “dazzlers,” which can illuminate aircraft cockpits and blind pilots.

Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA) said in a Feb. 20 report that the Navy’s Optical Dazzling Interdictor, or ODIN laser weapon, was recently installed on the USS Dewey guided missile destroyer.

The new laser-based drone defense system is capable of tracking, disabling, and jamming the sensors of enemy drones, according to a Congressional Research Service report from December 2019, titled “Navy Lasers, Railgun, and Gun-Launched Guided Projectile.”

While the Navy indicated it won’t be deterred from operating in the region, it isn’t clear whether the United States plans to engage in a tit-for-tat with the Chinese.

“U.S. Navy aircraft routinely fly in the Philippine Sea and have done so for many years. U.S. Navy aircraft and ships will continue to fly, sail, and operate anywhere international law allows,” the Navy said.

The Feb. 17 incident appears to have involved a dazzler onboard what reportedly appeared to be Hohhot, a Type 052D or Luyang III-class destroyer in the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy. It’s not known if the pilots of the American P-8A suffered temporary blindness.

The Navy pointed out that the incident violated 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.”

The Navy Instagram post included an aerial picture of Woody Island, one of China’s largest island outposts in the South China Sea, with an inset picture of a laser show at a music concert. “Meanwhile, in the South China Sea,” the text on the picture says. The image is likely illustrative as the Feb. 17 incident didn’t occur near the island.

For years, China has been criticized for harassing planes and vessels with lasers.

In 2018, the United States accused Chinese forces stationed in the East African nation of Djibouti of using a laser on C-130J aircraft, injuring American pilots.

Last year, Australia’s defense department reported multiple incidents where its aircraft and vessels were targeted with handheld lasers. Military insiders blamed Chinese fishing boats operating as part of Beijing’s “maritime militia,” ABC News reported.

Isabel Van Brugen and Jack Phillips contributed to this report.

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