The recent announcement by the US Air Force that it will equip its aircrews with 42,000 sets of anti-laser glasses comes in the wake of a worrying increase in laser attacks against American aviators and others by Chinese military forces.
Documented instances of Chinese aggression underscore the urgency of the not-so-insignificant purchase, as recently declassified documents reveal approximately 180 dangerous encounters with Chinese military aircraft over the South and East China Seas in the last two years. These incidents, many involving the use of high-spec military-grade lasers rather than the laser pointers we’re all familiar with, are putting the vision and sometimes the lives of American personnel at risk but not only that – they put the stability of the region at risk.
The danger of these attacks lies primarily in their ability to cause flash blindness, a usually temporary loss of vision that occurs when the intense light from a laser floods the retina. Such attacks can be particularly hazardous during critical flight phases like take-off and landing, where pilot visibility is essential. Beyond the immediate danger of disorientation there is the risk of permanent eye damage as exposure to high-intensity lasers can lead to retinal burns, posing a severe threat to the vision and career of pilots and, by extension, the safety of the aircraft and its occupants.
Furthermore, the operational disruption caused by these laser attacks – including distraction, temporary incapacitation, and confusion in the cockpit – can lead to severe accidents. Beyond the physical, there is also a psychological dimension to consider; repeated exposure to such threats can exacerbate stress and anxiety among aircrew, potentially impairing their effectiveness.
One relatively well-known example of this kind of attack occurred in 2020 when a Chinese Navy ship targeted a US surveillance aircraft with a laser near the Philippine Sea. The incident was condemned as “unsafe and unprofessional” by the US and her allies, but it wasn’t the first and wouldn’t be the last such incident caused by Beijing’s increasingly bold and assertive forces.
While the focus here is on China, the necessity for protective gear is a global concern, as evidenced by reports of laser attacks on various US bases worldwide. For example, Aviano Air Base in Italy reported 13 lasing incidents in a year targeting search-and-rescue helicopters. Moreover, the US Federal Aviation Administration has recorded a staggering 10,300 lasing incidents and 28 injuries in 2023 alone which far exceeds the previous year’s figures.
These incidents are not limited to US forces alone. Earlier this year, the Philippines lodged a protest against China for using lasers near Ayungin Shoal, which temporarily blinded their coast guard personnel.
This event, along with a similar one involving a Chinese Navy destroyer and a Royal Australian Air Force plane is a very clear signal that non-American forces are also vulnerable to China’s aggressive tactics. China is similarly aggressive in the waters around Taiwan.
These recurring incidents led to a formal diplomatic complaint by the US in 2018, citing instances where American pilots suffered eye injuries due to Chinese personnel using military-grade lasers near the US base in Djibouti. China has a military base in Djibouti. The protest, however, fell on deaf ears and attacks continued.
Laser attacks are quite interesting in a way as they represent a classic “grey zone” form of action, enabling an adversary to engage without officially firing a shot. This grants Chinese forces, at least theoretically, a degree of deniability. Since laser beams are often invisible and leave no physical trace it is challenging to definitively attribute these attacks which often allows the aggressor to evade direct responsibility and potential diplomatic consequences.
Furthermore, lasers offer a low-risk, high-impact method of engagement. They can be employed at a relatively low risk to the attacker while causing significant operational and psychological impact on the target. This shadowy method of engagement makes them an attractive option for a regime that spends much of its focus on bullying and harassing its neighbours and the armed forces of its opponents. More strategically, lasers allow an adversary to probe the defences and responses of the US forces without escalating to conventional military engagement. Shining lasers helps to shine a light on valuable intelligence on the readiness and capabilities of the target, basically.
Introducing anti-laser gear is therefore crucial. It not only affords physical protection to aircrew but allows the US Air Force to maintain operational superiority and crew safety.
However, this development raises a pressing question: when will US allies that face the very same threats equip their forces with comparable protective gear? It is concerning that there are currently no plans for British forces to receive them despite the fact that HMS Prince of Wales will lead a Carrier Strike Group to the Far East relatively soon. What happens if a British aircraft crashes due to a laser attack?
In the face of an ever more assertive Beijing, US allies should adopt similar measures to safeguard their aircrew in the interest of their own personnel and to maintain order in the region. If not, it is only a matter of time before someone pays the ultimate price due to the lack of investment.