Australian Navy helicopter pilots have been targeted with laser beams as they flew over the South China Sea, in a series of attacks suspected to originate from the Chinese military. 

The pilots, who were chaperoning amphibious assault ship HMAS Canberra on its voyage from Vietnam to Singapore,  were forced into emergency landings after laser attacks from fishing boats, defence sources told Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC).

La Trobe University’s Euan Graham, an authority on Asian geopolitics who was onboard the mission, said the laser beam attacks took place while the Canberra was being tailed by a Chinese warship.

“Some helicopter pilots had lasers pointed at them from passing fishing vessels, temporarily grounding them for precautionary medical reasons. Was this startled fishermen reacting to the unexpected? Or was it the sort of coordinated harassment more suggestive of China’s maritime militia?” he wrote on The Strategist blog, which is run by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute think tank.  

“It’s hard to say for sure, but similar incidents have occurred in the western Pacific."

Mr Graham told CNN he did not see the incidents, but was informed by Australian pilots that they were harassed several times by commercial lasers.  

"It’s no secret that the broader thrust of China’s approach in the South China Sea is to try to make life difficult for foreign aircraft and warships there," he added.

A spokesperson for the Australian Defence Force has confirmed a rise in the use of hand-held laser devices across the region.

Beijing has stepped up island-building and naval patrols as it seeks to dominate the South China Sea, a strategically vital waterway through which one-third of world trade passes.

Several incidents linking the Chinese military and lasers have been reported as far away as Dijbouti in the Horn of Africa, where the US and China have established bases. 

Later Washington complained to China after powerful light beams were directed at aircraft, and there were similar allegations of US aircraft being menaced in the Pacific.

Last year, the Australian Defence Department publicly condemned the practice.

“The Australian government would view reports of military aircraft being targeted by lasers as an unwelcome and potentially dangerous development," a military spokesperson told the ABC in July 2018.

Beijing has routinely denied any involvement in laser attacks on American aircraft.

The British Airline Pilots’ Association has previously warned of the dangers to civilian flights.   

“A laser attack on an aircraft will inevitably startle and dazzle the pilots and may result in significant pilot distraction,” it said.  “At the same time pilots are concerned about the increasing power of laser beams and the potential they have to cause a serious crash or damage pilots’ eyes.”

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