Is China’s Djibouti-based military presence starting to create trouble for the U.S. military? In April, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration reproduced a Notice to Airmen (NOTAM) originally issued by the U.S. military warning of “multiple lazing events involving a high power laser” in airspace near China’s new military base.
The NOTAM warned aviators to “use extreme caution when transiting near this area” and further advised pilots that “if a laser is seen in or near Djibouti” to notify air traffic controllers in the area. The NOTAM was reproduced by the FAA on April 14.
The location referenced in connection with the laser activity is under 1 kilometer from the perimeter of China’s new military logistics facility in Djibouti, which was announced in 2015. The facility is China’s first overseas military base and Beijing has justified the facility by noting its role in enabling the People’s Liberation Army-Navy to sustain anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden and the western Indian Ocean.
According to a report in Jane’s Defense Weekly referenced by the South China Morning Post regarding the incident, “multiple intelligence sources” have attributed use of a high-power laser weapon at the Chinese base in Djibouti specifically. These kinds of lasers — sometimes called “dazzlers” — can be used to blind pilots and disable unmanned systems as well.
While China’s pursuit of blinding laser weaponry has been known for some years now, the People’s Liberation Army is not known to have used any high-powered lasers against pilots before. In 1998, China ratified the 1995 Protocol on Blinding Laser Weapons, part of the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons.
China’s base in Djibouti is northwest of Camp Lemonnier, U.S. Africa Command’s only permanent base on the continent. Camp Lemonnier hosts 4,000 U.S. and allied military and civilian personnel and supports U.S. operations in the Gulf, the western Indian Ocean, and the Middle East. The United States used to operate unmanned combat aerial vehicles from Djibouti, but stopped in 2013.
Djibouti hosts military facilities for a range of other countries owing to its strategic location at the intersection of the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, near the Bab-el-Mandeb strait. Japan and France maintain facilities there and use the Djibouti-Ambouli International Airport to launch operations. The airport is adjacent to Camp Lemonnier.
The United States has yet to publicly comment or attribute the use of high-powered lasers to China, but the use of these kinds of non-lethal weapons by states aren’t unprecedented. During the Cold War, in 1987 for example, Soviet military personnel used a laser beam to target the crew of a WC-135B Constant Phoenix. To protect pilots against exposure, the U.S. Air Force and other air forces use special eye protection goggles to defend against laser hazards.