Should Australia Give China Taste of Laser Weapons Through RAN’s Hobart-class Destroyer?

The Australian Department of Defense confirmed on 17 February 2022, a P-8A Poseidon detected a laser illuminating the aircraft while in flight over Australia’s northern approaches with the Australian exclusive economic zone.

Such actions are not in keeping with the standards we expect 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 have since transited through the Torres Strait and are in the Coral Sea.

Tensions have ratcheted up particularly in the South China Sea, which Beijing claims almost in its entirety, while the U.S. and its allies insist on freedom of navigation and overflight in international waters.

Such episodes are not uncommon as the U.S. and its allies accuse China of asserting its military might and have taken steps to challenge Beijing’s growing clout in the western Pacific and elsewhere.

A PLA-N Luyang-class guided-missile destroyer (left) and a PLA-N Yuzhao-class amphibious transport dock vessel leave the Torres Strait and enter the Coral Sea on 18 February 2022. Photo by Australian Defense Department

In a statement Saturday that the laser came from a People’s Liberation Army Navy vessel, the department said. It was accompanying another Chinese ship that transited through the Torres Strait. It said that both ships were now in the Coral Sea, east of Australia.

“Illumination of the aircraft by the Chinese vessel is a serious safety incident,” the Defense Department said. “We strongly condemn unprofessional and unsafe military conduct. These actions could have endangered the safety and lives of the ADF personnel.”

A Headquarters Joint Operations Command storyboard depicting the movements of a PLA-N Luyang-class guided-missile destroyer and a PLA-N Yuzhao-class amphibious transport dock vessel, including their passage into the Arafura Sea and through the Torres Strait into the Coral Sea. Note the lasing incident against a Royal Australian Air Force P-8 Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft that occurred on 17 February 2022.

Lasers present a serious problem because when aimed at aircraft they can injure pilots or temporarily blind them — which can present safety risks particularly as they are taking off and landing.

Two years ago, the U.S. also accused the Chinese navy of firing a laser at one if its Poseidon planes over the Pacific. China denied it, saying the plane had circled at low altitude over its warship despite repeated warnings.

In 2019, Australian navy helicopter pilots reported being were hit by lasers while exercising in the South China Sea, forcing them to land as a precaution. In 2018, the U.S. issued a formal complaint to the Chinese government over the use of high-grade lasers near the military base in Djibouti that were directed at aircraft and resulted in minor injuries to two American pilots.

Directed-energy weapons in the U.S. Navy

USS Portland previously tested the LWSD in May 2020 when it successfully disabled a small unmanned aerial system while operating in the Pacific Ocean. During the demonstration, the Solid-State Laser – Technology Maturation Laser Weapons System Demonstrator (LWSD) Mark 2 MOD 0 aboard Portland successfully engaged a static surface training target.

The USS Portland fires a laser weapon system at a target floating in the Gulf of Aden on December 14, 2021. 

The Office of Naval Research selected Portland to host the laser weapon technology in 2018. The LWSD is considered a next-generation follow-on to the Laser Weapon System (LaWS) that afloat forward staging base USS Ponce (AFSB(I)-15) tested for three years while operating in the Middle East.

Amphibious transport dock USS Portland (LPD 27) transits the Gulf of Aden, Dec. 13, with a Solid State Laser – Technology Maturation Laser Weapons System Demonstrator Mark 2 MOD 0 on board. The Office of Naval Research selected Portland to host the laser weapon technology in 2018. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Patrick Katz)

For several years, Lockheed Martin and the Navy have been working on a 60 kilowatt, ship-integrated laser weapon called the High Energy Laser with Integrated Optical-dazzler and Surveillance (HELIOS). Having recently completed testing and preparation at Wallops Island, the weapons will soon be sent to San Diego, California, to arm a Navy destroyer called the USS Preble, Lockheed developers said at the Surface Navy Association Symposium.

Hobart-class destroyer with laser weapons

The Royal Australian Navy’s three Hobart-class destroyers are set to undergo an Aegis combat system upgrade which will increase the Australian Defense Force’s (ADF) air and missile defence capability.

The Hobart-class will also have an Australian developed interface installed to integrate the Aegis combat system with the rest of the ship’s systems.

The upgraded version of the Aegis combat system for the Hobart-class Destroyers will also be installed in the new Hunter Class frigates, providing Defense with world-leading technology while improving sovereign shipbuilding capability.

The Australian Department of Defence will commence industry and State engagement to inform Government consideration in 2021 on the shipyard location to deliver these upgrades. Work in Australia to install the new Aegis combat system and Australian Interface in Navy’s destroyers and frigates is planned to commence in 2024.

As part of these upgrade packages, the Royal Australian Navy could potentially upgrade Hobart-class destroyer and Canberra-class amphibious assault ship with High Energy Laser with Integrated Optical-dazzler and Surveillance (HELIOS), Maturation Laser Weapons System Demonstrator (LWSD) Mark 2 MOD 0 or AN/SEQ-3 Laser Weapon System or XN-1 LaWS developed by the U.S. Navy.

Australian Defense Minister Linda Reynolds and Chief of Navy Vice Admiral Michael Noonan at the acceptance ceremony.

Lasers are also inexpensive, meaning they could be in a position to track and destroy incoming anti-ship missiles, rockets, or larger platforms such as enemy helicopters, drones, and ships with multiple successive shots without needing to expend expensive interceptor missiles.

Australian warships have encountered the Chinese navy in the South China Sea during a voyage that saw them sail close to contested islands claimed by Beijing.

The Australian warships, led by HMAS Canberra, transited through the increasingly tense region as they made their way to the Philippine Sea for training exercises with the American and Japanese navies.

Last year, the Royal Australian Navy was closely followed by the Chinese military during a similar transit of the South China Sea.

Armed with laser weapons, the Royal Australian Navy’s Hobart-class destroyer could give the People Liberation Army Navy the taste of their own medicine should the Hobart-class destroyer meet with Chinese  Shaanxi Y-8 Maritime patrol aircraft in the South China Sea.

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