US military pilots operating from an American base in the nation of Djibouti, in the Horn of Africa, have been reporting recent incidents of “laser strikes” believed to be coming from a Chinese military base just eight miles away.
A recent “Notice to Airmen” (NOTAM) cautioned of “unauthorized laser activity,” adding that there had been “multiple lazing events involving a high-power laser” near the Chinese base.
The Camp Lemonnier base at the Djibouti International Airport hosts military bases from several nations, including France and Japan. Approximately 4,000 Americans are stationed there, many of whom are involved in counterterrorism and drone operations. China’s base opened in August 2017.
Civilian pilots in the United States and around the world have dealt with similar situations for years. In the US, hitting an aircraft with a laser is a federal crime.
As Ars has reported for years, federal authorities take such laser strikes very seriously and prosecute cases whenever they can. The Department of Justice told Ars that more than 28,000 laser illumination incidents in the United States have been reported to the Federal Aviation Administration between 2011 and 2015. But as of 2014, only 134 arrests were made, with 80 resulting convictions.
As of October 22, 2016, the FAA reported 5,564 incidents nationwide for 2016. That’s more than 22 laser strikes reported in the United States every day.
Lawmakers and aviation officials have been concerned that increasingly powerful lasers could be used against a plane to blind a pilot and bring an aircraft crashing down. While no aircraft in American airspace has ever been brought down (or forced to make an emergency landing), there has been a concerted effort to identify and crack down on those carrying out such strikes.
“I don’t know of crashes, but I do know of pilots that have suffered permanent disabilities from laser strikes,” Karen Escobar, a Fresno, California-based federal prosecutor who has likely brought more laser cases than anyone, told Ars in 2016.