[A version of this article appears in the March 24 edition of Aviation Week & Space Technology.]
The hunt forFlight MH370 has thrown a harsh light on the fragile nature of internal and cross-border relationships in Southeast Asia, as a lack of coordination hampered both detection of the flightpath and response to its disappearance.
The miscommunication among various agencies and countries during the MH370 search has been almost farcical at times and is likely to prompt changes in how various organizations collaborate during emergencies. It took tragic incidents to spur reform in other places, too, such as the U.S. after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Cross-border cooperation is a tough nut to crack, but improved civil-military coordination is something for which many states are striving—with different degrees of success.
Although the countries involved in the initial MH370 search are nominally part of the Association of South East Asian Nations (Asean), the lines of direct contact at most levels between them are strained by strong national interests. The glacial progress of movement to an Asian open-skies commercial agreement illustrates this well.
While Malaysian Transport Minister Hishammudin Hussein says the level of cooperation between nations has been “unprecedented,” the fact that Thailand’s military tracked MH370 yet did not communicate the data—“because it wasn’t asked,” it said—indicates serious problems. Thai military radar noted a “blip” that could have been MH370, but this was not even mentioned to any Thai authorities outside the military for 10 days.
More than 40 hr. after the disappearance, the Malaysian chief of police told media that “not every country whose nationals were onboard has responded to requests for information.”
Foot-dragging by Indonesia when asked for permission for search-and-rescue aircraft to overfly its territory also highlights what are deep and enduring suspicions of neighboring countries’ intentions when conducting any kind of operations across borders.
The fact that the boundary areas of early search efforts crossed maritime sectors that are under dispute by some of the key players—China, Vietnam and the Philippines—made full and immediate disclosure of the radar data, surveillance levels and intelligence capability less than likely.
Another major issue in Southeast Asia is the degree of autonomy enjoyed by the various services of specific countries. The army, air force, navy, internal security agencies and air navigation service providers (ANSP) do cooperate, but often not as closely as elsewhere in the world.
Although Malaysian military radar tracked a then-unidentified aircraft across its airspace early on March 8, this was not linked into the investigation by the civilian aviation authorities for almost two days. The Thai military’s delay in disclosing radar data to Thai civil authorities also highlights internal issues.
Problems unveiled by the MH370 response are not necessarily new, nor are they unique to Southeast Asia. For example, ANSPs around the world have been attempting to address the issue of civil-military cooperation for many years. Because civil and defense agencies have different objectives for surveillance, they often operate separately from each other. National security concerns keep defense surveillance data from being used by civil agencies, and vast amounts of airspace are closed to civil air traffic due to defense requirements. In India, for example, this can be as much as 35% of total airspace.
However, efforts are underway globally to improve the civil-military disconnect, and in some countries major improvements have been made. The flexible use of airspace (FUA) concept is being applied to military airspace zones, allowing commercial traffic to fly through these areas when they are not being used by the military. While surveillance data-sharing by defense agencies is still not common, many ANSPs have established multi-agency teams to ensure cooperation during crises, and defense representatives are often stationed at civil air traffic management (ATM) centers.
In a recent speech, Jeff Poole, director general of the Civil Air Navigation Services Organization, drew attention to constraints caused by military airspace restrictions in the Middle East, where only about half the airspace is available for civil traffic.
Poole notes that in Europe, the U.S. and certain parts of Asia, the progressive opening of military airspace to civilian operations “has been managed responsibly to the benefit of both sides.” This has led to FUA, shorter routes, cost savings and fewer delays. “The case is clear, and we are working hard with states to accelerate progress,” says Poole.
The main platform for efforts to improve civil-military cooperation globally is the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), which crafted a set of policy principles and guidelines on the issue in 2011 that is still regarded as the standard. ICAO has been holding meetings in various parts of the world to promote these concepts. States “will benefit from a strong commitment to civil-military collaboration,” which has the potential to increase safety, airspace capacity, national security and operational efficiency, the policy document says.
ICAO advocates the exchange of surveillance and flight identification data between military and civil ATM units, direct communication lines, and even joint airspace design and technology procurement. Better coordination procedures as well as improved communications technology will play a key role, it asserts.
The U.S. has one of the most sophisticated interagency coordination networks, although it was found to have had flaws during the response to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The commission established to assess the response identified several areas where communication between agencies was poor. This has now changed, with multiple joint entities working more effectively at operational and strategic levels.
One of the most important of these is the Domestic Events Network, a multi-agency teleconferencing system that allows instant communications in the event of airspace violations, failure of aircraft to communicate with controllers and any suspicious aircraft identified as “tracks of interest.”and military representatives are posted at each other’s facilities, and the FAA shares radar data with the North American Aerospace Defense Command.
Canada also has some of the best interagency cooperation. ANSP Nav Canada has an agreement with the Department of National Defense allowing it to use surveillance data from the North Warning System radar chain. Nav Canada has used this to extend its own coverage area off the country’s northeast coast. The two agencies exchange domestic radar feeds, and Nav Canada also exchanges surveillance data with the FAA.
Enhanced civil-military ATM coordination is a major element of Europe’s Single European Sky plan, and there is a strong military presence at Eurocontrol headquarters. Among European nations, Germany has an almost completely integrated civil and military ATM system, at least at the en-route level.
Meanwhile, Australia is pursuing joint airspace design and technology procurement, and its proposed new ATM system, known as OneSky, will be used by both civil and military operators. Thailand is taking a smaller step in this direction. As part of its ATM upgrade project, ANSP Aerothai plans to supply to the Royal Thai Air Force a work station compatible with its new system to improve coordination.
The Australian example is significant, given its prominent role in the search for MH370. Australia has not said how closely its military surveillance branches have been involved in the MH370 operation, although Prime Minister Tony Abbott said, “all of our agencies that could possibly help in this area are scouring their data.”
Theand other armed services as well as possibly the national signals-intelligence service seemingly became all the more effective in the search due to information from other countries telling them roughly where to look. When tasked with looking in the southern Indian Ocean, the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) says it “defined a possible search area with information available to us from a range of sources both nationally and internationally.”
AMSA did not disclose the providers of the information, but a conceivable military source would be signals-intelligence systems, which can locate and track aircraft from their radio emissions. High frequencies and long ranges challenge the process, however, especially for terrestrial receivers.
Satellites, with huge fields of view, are also used for the purpose. Australia has no signals-intelligence satellites but probably gets much information from those operated by the U.S.
Civil-military cooperation is far less of an issue within China, where the military is likely to take the lead in any major search operation. The Air Traffic Management Bureau of the Civil Aviation Administration of China operates secondary radars and some primary radars, but it would have every reason to supply its information to the air force. Moreover, the Chinese military has a strong commitment to civilian rescue operations.
International cooperation is another matter, as the Chinese military seems to regard the outside world with varying degrees of hostility and suspicion and is probably more secretive than any other major Asian military except North Korea’s. For example, if it had intelligence from a sensitive source, it would be at least very careful in sharing the information.