Monday, March 17, 2014

The Missing Links

Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 has been missing for 10 days now, and investigators appear to be no closer to figuring out what happened to the Boeing 777 and the 239 souls on board.

Here's the current consensus on what might have happened to that jet.  After departing Kuala Lumpur, en route to Beijing, the aircraft's transponder was switched off over the Gulf of Thailand, about 40 minutes into the flight.  Apparently, the transponder--which identifies the flight and provides heading and altitude data--was turned off shortly after the last radio contact with the jet, when co-pilot Fariq Ab Hamid said "all right, good night," to air traffic controllers.

But that wasn't the only system disabled on the Boeing 777.  Someone in the cockpit--one of the pilots or perhaps an unknown hijacker--also turned off the Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System, or ACARS.  While Malaysia Airlines opted for only a basic ACARS capability on its 777, the system still sent out electronic pings to satellites after it disappeared from air traffic control radar screens.  That indicates that Flight 370 was airborne for several hours, with enough time and fuel to fly to a host of locations on the Asian subcontinent (following a northerly route), or well across the Indian Ocean, if it took a southerly trek.  It should also be noted that ACARS transmissions would continue if the plane was on the ground as well.

There are reports that both Malaysian and Thai military radars tracked the plane, with the last apparent contact coming around 2:15 am (local time), from a post in southern Thailand.  If the blip was Flight 370, it was heading west towards the Bay of Bengal, at an altitude of 30,000 feet.  Before that, the contact had climbed to 45,000 feet, then descended as low as 5,000 feet before returning to FL300.  Some experts theorize the altitude changes were evidence of a struggle in the cockpit, while others believe the climb was used to incapacitate and finally kill the passengers and cabin crew.

Assuming this information is accurate, it begs some rather obvious questions.  First, there are more emitters on a jetliner than the transponder and ACARS.  What about the radar altimeter and weather radar, for example?  They could be easily disabled, but if the 777 dropped to low altitude--as some experts have suggested--the altimeter would be very useful, to avoid hitting terrain or the water.

But there have been no reports about detection of other signals from the aircraft--at least publicly.  One reason is that most of the MSM knows little about aviation, and don't know enough to ask their on-air "consultants" (or other sources) about other signals about emanating  from the 777.  The same principle extends to various intelligence agencies--including the NSA and its Australian counterpart, the Defense Signals Directorate.  If the radar altimeter or weather radar remained operational, there is a chance that NSA or DSD detected the plane later in the flight.

However, such reporting would be tempered by the reality that multiple aircraft use the same altimeter or weather radar, and if Flight 370 followed established air routes (as some believe), then it might be difficult to distinguish the Malaysian jet from other commercial jets in the area.  On the other hand, if the plane headed away from air corridors, then later emissions from other on-board emitters could provide some clues about its route and final destination.

It's also logical that various governments aren't volunteering this type of information, since it would offer insights on their ELINT collection capabilities.  In fact, if there were later intercepts of other on-board signals, then some of the routing theories are little more than red herrings, aimed at deflecting attention away from how much is really known about the final hours of that 777.

Likewise, the media might also inquire about some of those reported contacts by Malaysian and Thai military radars.  The type of equipment being used that night will offer additional information about the probability of actual detection.  Put another way, more modern, 3-D radars would be more likely to detect/track the flight than older models that require altitude tracing (from a separate radar) for accurate detection.  So far, neither government has said what type of military radar was being used and where they were located.  That would also influence the accuracy of the reported tracking.

Authorities have also failed to release the actual conversations between air traffic controllers and the missing flight.  If Malaysian controllers were doing their job, the sudden loss of Flight 370's transponder "squawk" should have prompted immediate calls to the jet.  Why not release the tapes of the final radio exchanges between the 777's flight crew and controllers on the ground?

Similarly, the air forces of Malaysia and Thailand have been mum about their actions in the hours after the passenger jet disappeared.  With an unknown aircraft transiting their airspace, why weren't jet fighters scrambled?  And what sort of conversations took place between civilian controllers and their military counter-parts?  Or, as some have suggested, did the 777 fly a carefully planned route to avoid detection, or use the resolution cell (radar shadow) of another aircraft to hide from air traffic controllers and military radar?

And what role did lax procedures or even incompetence play in the airliner's disappearance.  At least one report indicates the jet over-flew multiple Malaysian radar sites as it changed course.  But as far as we know, jet fighters were never scrambled.  Was there any contact between civilian controllers and their military counterparts after Flight 370 disappeared from radar scopes?  Officials in Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok aren't saying--at least not yet.

It is too early to say if that Boeing 777 is at the bottom of the Indian Ocean, or sitting on a remote airfield in south Asia, covered with radar-absorbent, state-of-the-art camoflague netting, awaiting to take flight on a terrorist mission.  At this juncture, the evidence would seem to suggest some sort of suicide-by-pilot, but the terrorism scenario cannot be ruled out.

Late Monday, it was reported that Israel had put its air defenses on higher alert, cognizant that if the plane was hijacked, and if it is now in the hands of terrorists on the Asian sub-continent, it is now within range of their airspace.  At least one media outlet (Fox News) claimed that some of Israel's surface-to-air missile batterys had been repositioned, and the IAF was stepping up its combat air patrols.  Prudent steps by a nation whose aerial "frontier" is located less than five minutes' flying time from Tel Aviv.  But these measures are not implemented on the the spur of the moment, in response to a threat that appears remote, at least in the eyes of so-called experts.  It's enough to make you wonder: do the Israelis know (or suspect) an aerial threat that we are dismissing as remote?              



Joanneinparadise said...

Great article. Very well thought out in a most logical manner. Easy to read, your English ability is better than most. WELL DONE! Even though I found it very chilling and, I thought what a great movie this will make al la ARGO. VERY VERY SCARY. You painted such a clear picture of what the passengers must have gone through.
EVERYONE'S WORST NIGHTMARE! Thank you for all the effort you put into this article, it is VERY SUCCINCT!

Vigilis said...

" If the radar altimeter or weather radar remained operational, there is a chance that NSA or DSD detected the plane later in the flight." - Nate H.

There is also a remote chance that MF370's ACARS pings were spoofed by another moving platform. Any scenario that entails a high tech plot must theorize that possibility, as well.

Without question, the intelligence services have already proven they have been playing coy, which can be reasonable.

However, if the disappearance is not due to a casualty & ditching (pilot suicide seems fairly highly doubtful), then the sophstication of planning and execution would rules out al Qaeda capability, according to the intelligence community.

We will soon be left to await evidence of either some innocent air casualty or pilot error.

The other alternative, suspicion of a highly sophisticated plot, would provoke a public demand to identify the foreign intelligence service (China, Fr, Gr, Is, Ru, Saudi, UK, or US) who perpetrated a highly sophisticated, false flag, operation.

Such public identifications are extremely rare and not to be expected, however. Currently, we cannot even venture what a credible motive for such a false-flag operation would be.

Why is a passenger jet's transponder on a vital bus, so that it cannot be de-energized by a pilot? Public safety should outweigh esoteric what-ifs. I expect the FAA, at least, to either publicly justify the on/off option or to mandate its elimination. Just my thoughts...

The Savage Possum said...

Nice piece as usual. Maybe Larry Bond could or Tom Clancy could have supposed a scenario from this. I suppose the events of 9/11 or the Boston bombing were outliers in the scope of probability at one time. In it's most heinous permutation, this would require great craft, high level backing & lots of capital.
Good luck Mr. Phelps.