US Complains After Chinese Lasers Injure 2 Air Force Pilots in Africa

A U.S Air Force C-130J Super Hercules from the 75th Expeditionary Airlift Squadron takes off from Camp Lemonnier, Djibouti in support of Combined Joint Task Force Horn of Africa, August 21, 2017. (U.S. Air Force/Staff Sgt. Nicholas Byers)
A U.S Air Force C-130J Super Hercules from the 75th Expeditionary Airlift Squadron takes off from Camp Lemonnier, Djibouti in support of Combined Joint Task Force Horn of Africa, August 21, 2017. (U.S. Air Force/Staff Sgt. Nicholas Byers)

Two U.S. airmen were slightly injured by laser beams directed at their aircraft from the Chinese military base in Djibouti, Pentagon officials said Thursday.

"This activity poses a true threat to our airmen," said Dana White, the Pentagon's chief spokesperson. "It's a serious matter, so we're taking it very seriously."

"You'd have to ask the Chinese about their motivations" for targeting U.S. aircraft in Djibouti, the tiny Horn of Africa state where American and Chinese military bases are about four miles apart, she said.

The U.S. has issued a formal complaint to China in the form of a diplomatic "demarche," she added.

U.S. Africa Command has its headquarters in Stuttgart, Germany, but the main hub for the estimated 6,000 U.S. troops in Africa is at Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti. The base also serves as the operations center for U.S. Special Operations Command for actions across the Red Sea in Yemen.

After White's briefing, Maj. Sheryll Klinke, a Pentagon spokeswoman, told reporters that the two injured airmen were pilots of a C-130 Hercules aircraft that was targeted by "military grade" laser. The pilots are not expected to suffer any long-term effects from the incident, she said.

White said the incident in which the pilots were injured was one of several in recent weeks in which U.S. aircraft flying out of Djibouti were targeted by lasers. She did not specify a number, but said it was more than two and less than 10.

The U.S. has expressed concerns about potential friction since China last year obtained a 10-year lease from Djibouti for its first military base in Africa. The Chinese facility is also the first overseas base for the People's Liberation Army.

Last summer, China's Xinhua news agency reported that the base will "assist China's contribution to peace and stability both in Africa and worldwide."

Djibouti also provides bases for France and Japan.

The African outpost will be "conducive to China's performance of international obligations" in anti-piracy sea patrols in the region and other commitments with the United Nations, Xinhua said.

In addition to those posted to Djibouti, China has about 2,200 troops serving throughout Africa in peacekeeping operations.

Marine Gen. Thomas Waldhauser, AFRICOM commander, told the Senate Armed Services Committee last year that he had conveyed his concerns about the Chinese base to Djibouti's President Ismail Omar Guelleh.

Without giving details, Waldhauser said he had "expressed our concerns about some of the things that are important to us about what the Chinese should not do at that location."

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.

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