Missing MH370: Malaysian air defence comes under scrutiny

Shahanaaz Habib

Shahanaaz Habib, The Star

WAS the Malaysian air force sleeping on the job? How could an unidentified aircraft fly through Malaysian air space without the air force sitting up and being on high alert? Why were no jets scrambled? How secure is our air space?

Those are some of the questions many have been asking since Flight MH370 went missing.

The March 8 flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing was flying over the South China Sea heading into Vietnam air space when someone deliberately switched off the transponder at 1.21am making it disappear from the air traffic control (ATC) radar screen.

The Boeing 777 passenger plane carrying 239 people including 12 crew then made a turnaround crossing back into Malaysian airspace.

Unchallenged and unidentified – although it was picked up as a blip by the military’s primary radar at 2.15am (although not in real time) – it flew over Penang before disappearing towards the Indian Ocean.

Aerospace Defence Consultant Ravi Madavaram insists the military did no wrong.

“From my point of view, they didn’t make a mistake. They didn’t miss a military aircraft. They missed a commercial aircraft which is not their job anyway (to monitor).”

He stresses that the objectives of the military’s primary radar and commercial secondary radar are very different.

The secondary radar, he says, is used by the air traffic control (ATC) to track commercial aircraft as much as possible especially during landing and takeoff, which are the critical stages of a flight.

It requires fast response and communication is done via a transponder in the cockpit of the aircraft.

The military, on the other hand, uses a primary radar as its purpose is to track which airplane is a friend or foe.

It does not need a transponder because typically an enemy aircraft will not respond.

The primary radar hardware is automated and gives out blips every four to 12 seconds.

A military jet would give out a very small signal on the radar, says Ravi of Frost & Sullivan, while a commercial jet will give a big reading.

“So I can understand if nobody gets excited over the MH370 passing because from the primary radar they can see that it’s too big to be a military aircraft and it looks like a commercial aircraft which is flying off route so they just ignore it.”

If it is something small and moving fast, like a fighter jet, that is when the air force will take it seriously and be on the alert, he adds.

For him, overlooking that passing of MH370 is totally forgivable given the fact that Malaysia has “not seen much territorial attacks” nor does it face threats from neighbouring countries.

“Military and perspective work in a particular setting. If it is an object between China and India, or India and Pakistan, then everyone is going to put their jets up because you have that war scenario there and everything needs to be regularly checked.”

But Malaysia and its neighbouring countries are generally peaceful countries, he says, so they are not thinking “this is war” and that readiness might not be there.

The readiness is not in isolation, he says. It goes very much hand in hand with intelligence, which may suggest a possible incursion, or that people are planning something.

In the case of the MH370, there was nothing of that sort.

Radar expert Hans Weber says normally when an unidentified plane is in detectable range, the chain of command of the radar site will try to contact the plane by radio and ask it to identify itself. When there is no answer, fighter jets may be launched to try and identify it or signal it to land at the nearest airport or, if there is still no response, to take the tough decision to shoot it down.

“But all this depends on a number of factors including whether the nation feels threatened and whether the plane was flying towards an important target,” he adds.

Aviation analyst Gerry Soejatman points out that there is still no full information as to how the MH370 trajectory behaved on the radar.

“It does raise questions, but we must also understand that this was not an unidentified object approaching a vital object/infrastructure/target in a suspicious manner.

“If it did, then yes, a lot of questions are going to be asked.”

He notes that the military did suspect it was the MH370 turning back for reasons unknown to them and the military protocol would be to observe its behaviour and try to determine whether it was in distress or whether it was going to be a threat.

“The aircraft rightly so at the time was determined not to be a threat hence not intercepted. Before they realised the full extent of the situation, the aircraft had slipped far enough to make interception impractical or impossible.

“If this is a case of an unidentified aircraft coming out of nowhere aimed towards the peninsula, then a threat level would exist and possibly lead to interception.

“We must answer the question whether the action of the Malaysian Air Force was reasonable or not at that time; and not by using the benefit of hindsight because hindsight is always 20/20.”

It has been just over two weeks since MH370 went missing, and some 26 countries have now joined in the massive search and rescue operation to find it.

The last known signal from the aircraft came from an Inmarsat satellite at 8.11am indicating that it had travelled another six hours after leaving the west coast of Malaysia and out of the range of Malaysia’s military primary radar.

Countries in the northern arc and southern arc where the aircraft might have headed have been asked to check their own radar data to see if the plane had passed over their air space.

But therein lies some difficulties, some which might be potentially embarrassing or revealing.

If MH370 did cross into the airspace of other countries unnoticed, Weber says, it would also mean that the air defence in those countries might be a bit lax in the wee hours of the morning.

“But it might have flown a normal flight path at a normal altitude in a heavily travelled air corridor and thus did not get anybody to raise an alarm.”

Soejatman says that if the aircraft did enter another country’s territory, “we would also need to know how it did it before we can question why no red flags were raised”.

“There are tricks that can be adopted to enter a country using another aircraft to “piggyback”, this would make it extremely difficult for the flight to have been detected as it enters a country’s territory.”

MIT aeronautics and astronautics professor Dr R. John Hansman says MH370 did not have to cross the airspace of other countries as it could have remained over international waters away from countries or military radar.

One startling revelation to come out of this search and rescue operation was when India admitted that its radar in Nicobar and Andaman were shut at the time of the MH370 flight due to budget constraints.

Ravi says that while this might help Malaysia try and figure out where the aircraft has gone, India is not helping itself by giving that away.

“They are showing themselves in a bad light to an enemy who can do damage to their country.

“The main purpose of the military is to protect the country. I don’t think for a missing aircraft countries are going to expose their limitations,” he says.

He points out too that if any other country had switched off their radar to cut costs, in all likelihood they would not disclose this information to other countries, because it would not look good on them and their military.

Ravi points out that operating a primary radar is expensive because it beams a very strong signal which requires a lot of electricity and hence money to keep it on 24 hours.

So it would not come as a surprise to him if some of the poorer countries with no high security threats do not have their radar switched on all the time.

“But they will just say ‘we didn’t see the plane on our radar’ which is the truth because their radar was switched off. But it does not mean it didn’t pass through their air space.”

Dr Hansman believes that countries would not be prepared to put aside their own security concerns and share data that might give away their defence capabilities just to find a missing aircraft. “They would not compromise their security,” he says.

Concurring, Weber says he would not be surprised if the defence radar systems of other countries have radar information, which they have not yet revealed.

“This would be typical for the military.”

As Soejatman rightly points out, “defence is not just about capability, but also hiding such capability or the lack of it”.

He notes that no country will publicly admit to using classified technologies to find the aircraft.

“Such exchange of information using these special capabilities is likely to already be happening behind the scenes among friendly nations or through a friendly nation.

“What we are seeing are the non-classified capabilities being used.

“Beyond that, any country would be foolish to disclose the use of classified technology without careful consideration.”

He also says that the satellite imagery data that we are seeing are of non-classified capabilities only.

As for Malaysia, they have come out to say that they have revealed and shared their raw data with other countries, even putting the country’s intelligence second to finding the aircraft.

But doesn’t this make the country vulnerable security wise?

Ravi thinks it does. “But at this point of time, Malaysia doesn’t have a choice but to give out all that information. Not finding the aircraft will have huge repercussions in terms of the economy and the scenario of the country and I don’t think Malaysia can run that risk.

“And even with giving out that information, they can’t find the aircraft. Imagine if they didn’t give out that information? It does impact a bit on Malaysia’s military capabilities but you cannot not give out the information,” he says.

Ravi also points out the irony is that the aviation industry is one of the most high tech industries in the world. Yet, despite all the advances in technology, the aircraft is still missing.

“It is unprecedented,” he says.