While a Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) P-8A Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft was conducting a routine surveillance flight over Australia’s northern approaches on February 17, it detected a laser illuminating the aircraft. The laser was detected as emanating from a Chinese People’s Liberation Army – Navy (PLAN) vessel. Illumination of the aircraft by the Chinese vessel is considered a serious safety incident.
Acts like this have the potential to endanger lives. Australia strongly condemned this unprofessional and unsafe military conduct. These actions could have endangered the safety and lives of the ADF personnel on board the aircraft. Such actions are not in keeping with the standards expected of professional militaries. The vessel, in company with another PLAN ship, was sailing east through the Arafura Sea at the time of the incident. Both ships, the Luyang class type 052D guided missile destroyer Hefie (174) and Yuzhao Type 071 amphibious transport dock ship Jinggang Shan (999), subsequently transited through the Torres Strait and into the Coral Sea.
Australia’s Department of Defence conducts surveillance patrols as part of its integrated and layered approach to surveillance of the country’s maritime approaches including the Australian Exclusive Economic Zone. These activities are conducted in a disciplined and safe manner, well clear of surface vessels and in accordance with international law, particularly the United Nations Convention of the Laws of the Sea (UNCLOS).
To undertake surveillance of the approaches to Australia the P-8A is equipped with an array of sensors to locate, track and understand air, surface and subsurface contacts. Surveillance activities are conducted using all available surveillance tools including photography, sonobuoys and radio calls to identify maritime and air traffic. The use of sonobuoys for maritime surveillance is common practice.
Sonobuoys are used to collect passive acoustic data on environmental activity as well as surface and sub-surface contacts. These buoys are a receiving buoy only and do not pose any hazard to shipping. No sonobuoys were used prior to the PLA-N vessel directing its laser at the P-8A aircraft on February 17. Some sonobuoys were used after the incident but were dropped in the water a significant distance ahead of the PLA-N vessel. The aircraft was acting within international law at all times.
At the time of the lasing incident the RAAF P-8A was approximately 4nm (7.7km) from the PLA-N vessel and was flying at an altitude of 1,500ft (457m). The closest the Poseidon flew to the PLA-N vessel was approximately 2nm (4km). This is a standard flight profile for RAAF maritime patrol aircraft for a visual investigation of a surface vessel.
Australia expects all foreign vessels entering its maritime zones to abide by international law, particularly the UNCLOS. Australia has raised its concerns to the Chinese Government about the lasing incident, via senior Australian Defence and DFAT officials liaising directly with the Chinese Embassy in Canberra. Senior diplomatic staff in Beijing have also raised the matter with both China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Ministry of National Defence. Australia supports and respects the rights of all states to exercise lawful freedom of navigation and overflight in international waters and airspace.