Australian navy pilots hit with lasers during South China Sea military exercise

Australian navy helicopter pilots have been hit with laser beams from fishing boats suspected of being part of China’s maritime militia during a recent military exercise in the South China Sea.

La Trobe University’s Euan Graham was among academics invited to observe the Indo-Pacific Endeavour 2019 exercise onboard landing helicopter dock HMAS Canberra during its Vietnam to Singapore leg.

He noted interactions between the Royal Australian Navy and People’s Liberation Army Navy were cordial.

“We were followed at a discreet distance by a Chinese warship for most of the transit, both on the way up and back, despite the fact that our route didn’t take us near any feature occupied by Chinese forces or any obviously sensitive areas,” Graham wrote in a piece for the Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s Strategist blog.

Graham said the presence of the trailing escort had no obvious effect on HMAS Canberra’s activities or the pace of flight operations. The army’s Tiger attack helicopters practised night flying and deck landings, he said.

“Some helicopter pilots had lasers pointed at them from passing fishing vessels, temporarily grounding them for precautionary medical reasons,” Graham said “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.”

Last year there were reports US military pilots were hit with lasers in the East China Sea more than 20 times.

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