July 2023

Illuminating China’s Use of Directed-Energy Weapons

Karla Mae G. Pabeliña

On 13 February 2023, the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) released information on the use of “military-grade” lasers by the China Coast Guard (CCG) against the crew of BRP Malapascua during the latter’s resupply mission to the Ayungin Shoal (Second Thomas Shoal) on 6 February 2023.1

Source: Philippine Coast Guard, 13 February 2023

Based on the video and photos taken during the incident, the CCG vessel hit the BRP Malapascua with a green laser which caused temporary blindness to the PCG crew.2 China quickly provided its version of the incident, with Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Wang Wenbin arguing that the CCG only used a “hand-held laser speed detector and hand-held green light pointer to measure the distance and speed of the Philippine vessel and signal directors to ensure navigational safety.”3 Given that the involved CCG vessel consistently shadowed, harassed, and conducted dangerous maneuvers against the BRP Malapascua, such a narrative does not stand on firm ground.

Types and Uses of Directed-Energy Weapons

The Malapascua incident is the most recent of several documented cases of China’s use of directed-energy weapons (see Table 1). Directed-energy weapons use concentrated energy to “incapacitate, damage, disable, or destroy enemy equipment, facilities, and/or personnel.”4 Such destructive energy is delivered by intense light (lasers); electromagnetic radiation (e.g., directed radio waves produced by certain radars); particles with mass (particle beam weapons); sound (sonic weaponry); and fire (flamethrowers).5

Directed-energy weapons have long elicited interest from militaries around the world, with President Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative promising that directed energy weapons, among other systems, would shield a country from large-scale nuclear attack. Directed-energy weapons are viewed as cost-effective alternatives to missiles as they allow unlimited shots compared to traditional guns and missiles and simplified aim and use.6 There is also an element of deniability, as the effects of strikes are often not visible, contrary to what popular media shows.

Table 1: Reported Incidents of Chinese Use of Directed-Energy Weapons

DateDetails of the Incidents
3 May 2018The United States filed a diplomatic protest against China for the latter’s use of military-grade lasers against a US aircraft, which was landing in Camp Lemonier in Djibouti. Two US airmen piloting the military transport aircraft experienced minor eye injuries and dizziness.7
22 June 2018The United States Indo-Pacific Command reported that US military aircrafts operating over the East China Sea were targeted by lasers more than 20 times. The laser signals appeared to have been from Chinese fishing boats.8
17 February 2020A US Navy P-8A Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft was lased by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA)-Navy Destroyer 161 while flying above international waters approximately 380 miles west of Guam.9
22 April 2020The Philippines filed a diplomatic protest against China following the radar targeting of PLA-Navy ship 514 to Philippine Navy’s BRP Conrado Yap.10
17 February 2022Australia Department of Defence reported that a PLA-N Luyan-class guided missile destroyer illuminated a Royal Australian Air Force P-8 Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft.11

Regulations on Directed-Energy Weapons Use

The use of directed-energy weapons, particularly lasers, is regulated by the principles of international humanitarian law (IHL) and Protocol IV on Blinding Laser Weapons of the Convention on Prohibitions or Restrictions on the Use of Certain Conventional Weapons Which May Be Deemed to be Excessively Injurious or to Have Indiscriminate Effects (CCW). Specifically, Protocol IV prohibits the use of laser weapons that are “specifically designed, as their sole combat function or as one of their combat functions, to cause permanent damage to the unenhanced vision…or to the eye with corrective eyesight devices.”12 Article 2 of Protocol IV further requires Contracting Parties to “take all feasible precautions to avoid the incidence of permanent blindness” such precautions would include “training of their armed forces and other practical measures.”13

With China’s increasing propensity to use lasers as demonstrated by their significant investments in direct-energy weapons14 and publications which promote the use of lasers in their operations,15 CCW Contracting Parties may call on China to share information and provide evidence of the safety measures it has undertaken, the training of personnel it has conducted, and other practical measures to avoid causing unnecessary suffering and blinding. It behooves China, as among the first states that ratified CCW Protocol IV, to adhere to its commitments.16

Furthermore, China’s irresponsible use of directed-energy weapons to temporarily impair pilots and crews runs contrary to Article 2.8 (d) of the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES) on avoiding the use of laser “in such a manner as to cause harm to personnel or damage to equipment onboard vessels or aircraft encountered.”17 CUES was adopted during the 14th Western Pacific Naval Symposium held in Qingdao, China. The importance of CUES in improving operational safety was further affirmed by China in the Joint Statement on the Application of CUES in the South China Sea. 

Intimidation Without Fear of Escalation?

The idea that the use of directed-energy weapons, particularly the low-grade and non-lethal ones, are harmless and do not contribute to an escalation of violence should be rebuked. A number of studies have shown that even weapons not intended to kill or create permanent injury, if used with increasing regularity, will cause unintended and harmful consequences due to “the physiological differences among those against whom they are employed, physical malfunctioning, improper utilization and other circumstances.”18

Furthermore, it is an illusion to assume that employing low-energy directed-energy weapons to paralyze another state’s weapon and control systems will not lead to a full-blown armed conflict. Being targeted by lasers or illuminated by radars will not be viewed as simply non-lethal intimidation, as these systems are designed to provide fire control solutions for armed attacks and enhance the effectiveness of lethal weapons. Increasing use of such coercive means will likely lead to unintended or runaway escalation, especially if coupled with other aggressive acts that may lead targeted parties to believe an armed attack is imminent.

Mitigating Risks and Exploring Countermeasures

There are several ways forward for the concerned parties to mitigate the risks posed by directed-energy weapons to operational safety and conflict escalation.

Firstly, the Philippines should encourage ASEAN countries and China to include specific provisions regulating the use of directed-energy weapons, particularly non-lethal and low-energy systems during peacetime, in the proposed Code of Conduct in the South China Sea. Given that directed-energy weapons can cause visual impairment and interfere in the operations of vessels and aircraft, such systems should be regulated.

Secondly, a regional discussion assessing the potential impact of disruptive technologies such as directed-energy weapons in the military and law enforcement operations can be convened within the framework of the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting (ADMM), and ASEAN Coast Guard Forum. The focus will be on the weapon’s concepts of operations, integration into traditional munitions, and impact on rules of engagement, particularly if employed by maritime militia and non-state actors.

Thirdly, there is a need to improve awareness and data collection on directed-energy weapon use among military and law-enforcement units. There are systems available to detect such strikes, like laser warning receivers and radar warning receivers. Further, outfitting the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) units with electronic support measures (ESM) and limited signals intelligence (SIGINT) equipment to sample signals would also support gaining information and intelligence, which can make potential users think twice about using their radars and lasers for non-lethal coercion.

Finally, investments should be made in protective measures to defend against blinding laser strikes, focused radio waves, or electromagnetic pulses. These would include eye protection, reflective coatings, and hardened electronic circuit systems.


In this current security environment characterized by heightened risks, states should avoid irresponsible behavior and provocative actions that further mistrust and instability. Good neighbors should demonstrate, in both words and deeds, their commitment to regional peace and common prosperity.

In the context of the South China Sea, all states have an inherent interest to facilitate maritime trade and protect the sea lanes of communication. All states are therefore expected to respect and uphold international law, including the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, if the South China Sea is to truly become a sea of peace, security, stability, and prosperity.


[1] Frances Mangosing, “China harrasses Philippine Coast Guard vessel with laser,” Inquirer.Net, 13 February 2023, https://globalnation.inquirer.net/210843/china-harasses-philippine-coast-guard-vessel

[2] Niña Cuasay, “PCG: Crew affected by Chinese laser attack being monitored for adverse effects,” Inquirer.Net, 14 February 2023, https://newsinfo.inquirer.net/1729763/pcg-crew-affected-by-chinese-laser-attack-being-monitored-for-adverse-effects

[3] Bernadette Tamayo, “China: No military grade laser, just ‘hand-held, greenlight pointer for navigational safety’,” The Manila Times,  16 February 2023, https://www.manilatimes.net/2023/02/16/news/china-no-military-grade-laser-just-hand-held-greenlight-pointer-for-navigation-safety/1878967

[4] US Joint Chiefs of Staff, Joint Electromagnetic Spectrum Operations, Joint Publication 3-85, 22 May 2020, GL-6, https://www.jcs.mil/portals/36/documents/doctrine/pubs/jp3_85.pdf?ver=2020-04-09-140128-347

[5] Bahman Zohuri, Directed-Energy Weapons: Physics of High Energy Lasers (HEL), (Switzerland: Springer International Publishing, 2016), Preface.

[6] Louse A. Del Monte, War at the Speed of Light: Directed-Energy Weapons and the Future of Twenty-First Century Warfare, (United States: Potomac Books, University of Nebraska Press, 2021), 81.

[7] Ryan Browne, “Chinese lasers injure US military pilots in Africa, Pentagon says”, CNN, 4 May 2018, https://edition.cnn.com/2018/05/03/politics/chinese-lasers-us-military-pilots-africa/index.html

[8] Jesse Johnson, “U.S. military pilots in East China Sea targeted in laser attacks”,  The Japan Times, 22 June 2018, https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2018/06/22/asia-pacific/u-s-military-pilots-east-china-sea-targeted-laser-attacks/

[9] Megan Eckstein, “Chinese Destroyer Lases U.S. Navy P-8A Plane Operating Near Guam,” USNI News, 27 February 2020, https://news.usni.org/2020/02/27/chinese-destroyer-lases-u-s-navy-p-8a-plane-operating-near-guam#:~:text=PEARL%20HARBOR%2C%20Hawaii%E2%80%93%20A%20U.S.%20Navy%20P-8A%20Poseidon,airspace%20in%20accordance%20with%20international%20rules%20and%20regulations.

[10] Frances Mangosing, “PH files 2 diplomatic protests vs. Chinese aggression in West Philippines Sea,” Inquirer.Net, 22 April 2020, https://globalnation.inquirer.net/187071/ph-files-2-diplomatic-protests-vs-chinese-aggression-in-west-philippine-sea

[11] James Massola, “Chinese guided missile destroyer aims laser at RAAF surveillance aircraft”, The Sydnes Morning Herald, 19 February 2022, https://www.smh.com.au/politics/federal/chinese-guided-missile-destroyer-fires-laser-at-raaf-surveillance-aircraft-20220219-p59xwx.html

[12] International Committee of the Red Cross, “Protocol on Blinding Laser Weapons (Protocol IV to the 1980 Convention), 13 October 1995”, ICRC International Humanitarian Law Databases, https://ihl-databases.icrc.org/en/ihl-treaties/ccw-protocol-iv

[13] Ibid.

[14] See for example, Stephen Chen, “China brings Star Wars to life with ‘laser AK-47’ that can set fire to targets a kilometre away,” South China Morning Post, 1 July 2018, https://www.scmp.com/news/china/diplomacy-defence/article/2153310/china-brings-star-wars-life-laser-ak-47-could-set-fire; “China Tests Laser Weapon Similar to U.S. Navy Prototype”, The Maritime Executive,  10 April 2019, https://maritime-executive.com/article/china-tests-laser-weapon-similar-to-u-s-navy-prototype#:~:text=China%27s%20People%27s%20Liberation%20Army%20Navy%20%28PLA%20Navy%29%20is,weapon%20which%20has%20been%20in%20development%20since%202014; Stephen Chen, “The powerful Chinese megawatt laser ‘small enough for a satellite’,” South China Morning Post, 7 January 2022, https://www.scmp.com/news/china/science/article/3162566/chinese-megawatt-laser-powerful-small-enough-be-used-satellite;

[15] See for example, Liu Xuanzun, “US intrusions in the South China Sea can be stopped by electromagnetic weapons: experts,” The Global Times, 17 March 2020; Zi Yang, “China’s Laser Weapons: Future Potential, Future Tensions?” RSIS Commentary, 5 June 2018, https://www.rsis.edu.sg/wp-content/uploads/2018/06/CO18093.pdf

[16] China ratified the CCW Protocol IV on 04 November 1998.

[17] “Document: Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea,” USNI News, 17 June 2014, https://news.usni.org/2014/06/17/document-conduct-unplanned-encounters-sea[1]

[18]See for example, Security Planning Cooperation, Nonlethal Weapons for Law enforcement, Research Needs and Priorities: A Report for the National Science Foundation, 1972. https://www.ojp.gov/ncjrs/virtual-library/abstracts/nonlethal-weapons-law-enforcement-research-needs-and-priorities; Robert Bunker and Dan Lindsay, “Laser Weapons: An Emerging Threat,” Special Issue of the FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, April 2008, https://scholarship.claremont.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1240&context=cgu_fac_pub; Eva Massingham, “Conflict without casualties…a note of caution: non-lethal weapons and international humanitarian law,” International Review of the Red Cross 94, Number 886 (Summer 2012), https://international-review.icrc.org/sites/default/files/irrc-886-massingham.pdf

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CIRSS Commentaries is a regular short publication of the Center for International Relations and Strategic Studies (CIRSS) of the Foreign Service Institute (FSI) focusing on the latest regional and global developments and issues.

The views expressed in this publication are of the authors alone and do not reflect the official position of the Foreign Service Institute, the Department of Foreign Affairs and the Government of the Philippines.

Karla Mae G. Pabeliña is a Senior Foreign Affairs Research Specialist with the Center for International Relations and Strategic Studies of the Foreign Service  Institute.