Gray Zone Tactics Playbook: Laser Dazzling
Dazzlers are an emerging category of non-lethal but potentially dangerous weapons and a relatively recent addition to China's gray zone arsenal. They can be used as a harassment tool; for destroying sensitive electro-optical sensors as an electronic warfare component; or as a weapon of psychological warfare.
Dazzlers are not themselves considered illegal. The U.S. military—which refers to them as "non-lethal optical distractors"—considers them an essential capability to "minimize fatalities, protect the innocent and limit collateral damage" when the alternative is lethal force, with the caveat that:
"Prior to fielding, all previously and currently fielded lasers or distracter devices have undergone legal reviews to ensure compliance with obligations assumed by the U.S. under applicable treaties, customary international law, and the law of armed conflict."
China has used dazzlers to temporarily blind the crew of other countries' ships. Because dazzlers have both physical and psychological effects their use against vessels at sea is hazardous, eroding their crews' ability to navigate and react to maritime contingencies.
The Philippine Coast Guard later clarified that was the second time this had occurred during a resupply mission.
China has also employed dazzlers against U.S. and Australian aircraft since at least 2018, as documented in incidents over the Pacific Ocean, the South China Sea, the East China Sea, the Arafura Sea, and near the Horn of Africa.
Note: Any use of lasers to permanently blind personnel is illegal under Protocol IV (Blinding Laser Weapons) under the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons, which China joined in 1998.