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Jet’s disappearance ‘deliberate’: Malaysia Plane saga highlights air defence gaps

 KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia, March 15, (Agencies): The Malaysian jetliner missing for more than a week was deliberately diverted and continued flying for more than six hours after severing contact with the ground, meaning it could have gone as far northwest as Kazakhstan or into the Indian Ocean’s southern reaches, Malaysia’s leader said Saturday. Prime Minister Najib Razak’s statement confirmed days of mounting speculation that the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 to Beijing was not accidental. It also refocused the investigation into the flight’s 12-person crew and 227 passengers, and underlined the complicated task for searchers who already have been scouring vast areas of ocean. “Clearly the search for MH370 has entered a new phase,” Najib said at a televised news conference. Najib stressed that investigators were looking into all possibilities as to why the Boeing 777 deviated so drastically from its original flight path, saying authorities could not confirm whether it was a hijacking. Earlier Saturday, a Malaysian official said the plane had been hijacked, though he added that no motive had been established and no demands had been made known. “In view of this latest development, the Malaysian authorities have refocused their investigation into the crew and passengers on board,” Najib told reporters, reading from a written statement but not taking any questions. Police on Saturday went to the Kuala Lumpur homes of both the pilot and co-pilot of the missing plane, according to a guard and several local reporters. Authorities have said they will investigate the pilots as part of their probe, but have released no information about how they are progressing. Experts have previously said that whoever disabled the plane’s communication systems and then flew the jet must have had a high degree of technical knowledge and flying experience. One possibility they have raised was that one of the pilots wanted to commit suicide.

Puzzling
The plane departed for an overnight flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing at 12:40 am on March 8. Its communications with civilian air controllers were severed at about 1:20 am, and the jet went missing — heralding one of the most puzzling mysteries in modern aviation history. China, where the bulk of the passengers were from, expressed irritation over what it described as Malaysia’s foot-dragging in releasing information about the search. Investigators now have a high degree of certainty that one of the plane’s communications systems — the Aircraft and Communications Addressing and Reporting System — was disabled before the aircraft reached the east coast of Malaysia, Najib said. Shortly afterward, someone on board switched off the aircraft’s transponder, which communicates with civilian air traffic controllers.

Najib confirmed that Malaysian air force defense radar picked up traces of the plane turning back westward, crossing over Peninsular Malaysia into the northern stretches of the Strait of Malacca. Authorities previously had said this radar data could not be verified. “These movements are consistent with deliberate action by someone on the plane,” Najib said. Although the aircraft was flying virtually blind to air traffic controllers at this point, onboard equipment continued to send “pings” to satellites. The prime minister said the last confirmed signal between the plane and a satellite came at 8:11 a.m. — 7 hours and 31 minutes after takeoff.

This was more than five hours later than the previous time given by Malaysian authorities as the possible last contact. Airline officials have said the plane had enough fuel to fly for up to about eight hours. “The investigations team is making further calculations which will indicate how far the aircraft may have flown after this last point of contact,” Najib said. Whatever truly happened to missing Malaysian Airlines flight MH370, its apparently unchallenged wanderings through Asian skies point to major gaps in regional — and perhaps wider — air defences. More than a decade after al-Qaeda hijackers turned airliners into weapons on Sept 11, 2001, a large commercial aircraft completely devoid of stealth features appeared to vanish with relative ease.

Air traffic systems rely almost entirely on on-board transponders to detect and monitor aircraft. In this case, those systems appear to have been deactivated around the time the aircraft crossed from Malaysian to Vietnamese responsibility. At the very least, the incident looks set to spark calls to make it impossible for those on board an aircraft to turn off its transponders and disappear. Military systems, meanwhile, are often limited in their own coverage or just ignore aircraft they believe are on regular commercial flights. In some cases, they are simply switched off except during training and when a threat is expected.

That, one senior Indian official said, might explain why the Boeing 777 was not detected by installations on India’s Andaman and Nicobar Islands, an archipelago which its planes were searching on Friday and Saturday, or elsewhere. “We have many radar systems operating in this area, but nothing was picked up,” Rear Admiral Sudhir Pillai, chief of staff of India’s Andamans and Nicobar Command, told Reuters. “It’s possible that the military radars were switched off as we operate on an ‘as required’ basis.” Separately, a defence source said that India did not keep its radar facilities operational at all times because of cost. Asked what the reason was, the source said: “Too expensive.” Worries over revealing defence capabilities, some believe, may have slowed cooperation in the search for flight MH370, particularly between Malaysia and China. Beijing has poured military resources into the search, announcing it was deploying 10 surveillance satellites and multiple ships and aircraft.

It has been critical of Malaysia’s response. While Malaysian military radar does appear to have detected the aircraft, there appear to have been no attempts to challenge it — or, indeed, any realisation anything was amiss. That apparent oversight, current and former officials and analysts say, is surprising. But the incident, they say, points to the relatively large gaps in global air surveillance and the limits of some military radar systems. “It’s hard to tell exactly why they did not notice it,” says Elizabeth Quintana, senior research fellow for air power at the Royal United Services Institute in London. “It may have been that the aircraft was flying at low level or that the military operators were looking for other threats such as fast jets and felt that airliners were someone else’s problem.” Current and former officials say that — hopefully, at least — such an incident would be detected much faster in North American or European airspace.

There, military and civilian controllers monitor radar continuously on alert for possible hijacks or intruders. The sudden failure of a transponder, they say, would itself prove a likely and dramatic cause for concern. “I can’t think of many situations in which one would actually need to switch them off,” said one former Western official on condition of anonymity. US and NATO jets periodically scramble to intercept unidentified aircraft approaching their airspace, including a growing number of Russian long-range bombers. In some other areas, it is simply not seen as worth maintaining a high level of alert — or radar coverage itself may not even exist.

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