MH 17 was shot down: who do we see about that?

canstockphoto4611964Of all the tragedies in a war, the most unfortunate is the loss of innocent lives. We see the human drama played out nightly in the conflicts between Russian separatists in the Ukraine, and elements of Hamas and the Israeli Defense Forces in the Gaza Strip, not to mention plenty of other places throughout the world. A certain degree of innocent suffering is expected for those who live in the area of the conflict, but rarely does it reach into the skies to affect those who have nothing to do with the war below.

Ironically, I had learned of the MH17 incident no more than 30 seconds after completing a lecture on the danger of shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles to commercial aircraft, in an airport security course I was teaching for the American Association of Airport Executives in Alexandria, Virginia. For a moment I thought I was going to have to eat my words when I mentioned that very few civil aircraft have been downed by a shoulder-fired missile, but then we quickly learned that this flight was most likely taken out of the sky by a vehicle mounted radar homing missile, not the manned portable air defense system that we commonly discuss in the aviation security threat matrix.

There have been several incidents of civil aircraft being shot down either by military aircraft or by surface-to-air missiles (SAM). Most often, these were aircraft that had drifted into another country’s airspace and were mistakenly identified as a military aircraft intrusion, or there was a malfunction of military equipment. In a few rare cases, aircraft have been downed intentionally by a SAM and, in a 2002 incident over Mombasa, Kenya, terrorists fired two MANPADs at at an El Al flight, but both missiles missed. Several incidents of an aircraft being intentionally shot at took place in a war zone, as in the case of a DHL flight being hit with a MANPAD (manned portable air defense system) over Baghdad in 2003.

Other incidents of civil aircraft being shot down include:

  • On September 1, 1983, Korean Airlines Flight 007 was shot out of the sky by an air-to-air missile fired by a Russian SU-15 fighter aircraft, when it drifted into Soviet airspace. The aircraft crashed into the Sea of Japan killing all 246 passengers. This was the second time a Korean Air Lines flight had been shot down – the first was in 1978 when KAL Flight 902 was shot down by Soviet SU-15 aircraft. However, the pilots were able to land that aircraft on a frozen lake. Two passengers died, but 107 passengers and survived.
  • On July 3, 1988, the USS Vincennes, a United States Navy guided missile cruiser patrolling the Persian Gulf, fired a surface-to-air missile that took down Iran Air 655. The Airbus A300 was destroyed and all 290 passengers were killed.
  • On April 6, 1994, an aircraft carrying the presidents of Rwanda and Burundi was shot down, killing all on board, as it attempted to land in Kigali, Rwanda. This was an intentional assassination.

When we addressed the threat of an aircraft being shot down in our book, Practical Aviation Security: Predicting and Preventing Future Threats, we only approached it from the manned portable air defense surface to air missile variant, not vehicle, boat or air launched missiles. Our rationale was that the MANPAD is more available through illicit means, whereas the large military platforms and the more sophisticated radar-homing (and other types of missiles) are typically beyond the garden-variety terrorist or criminal.

The downing of Malaysia Flight 17 by a military surface-to-air missile and the most recent flight restrictions and airline cancellations into Ben-Gurion International Airport expand the scope of aviation security into some new areas. These two incidents are also highly related.

MH17 likely played a significant role in the decision by the FAA to ban flights for two days into Israel. Rocket attacks into the country are unfortunately not uncommon, and while Ben Gurion is one of the most protected airports in the world, there are few defenses against an errant rocket hitting a fully fueled commercial airliner sitting on the ramp. Still, had MH 17 not happened, the ban may not have occurred. As an interesting sidebar, in 1994, the London/Heathrow Airport was harassed by elements of the Irish Republican Army firing mortar shells onto the airfield and periodic sniper-fire at passengers as they boarded and deplaned. No one was injured but it does bring up an interesting question:

When does the protection of the airport transfer from a security and police function to a military function?

Originally, we would have considered all of these challenges beyond the scope of the aviation security practitioner, but the airlines have a responsibility to protect their passengers and do what is in their power to provide for the safety of the flight. If I was the security manager for an airline, this would certainly rise to the top of my priority list; we should all be very concerned about the routing of aircraft not just into but also over an area of military conflict. Also, for airport security practitioners, it is important to remember that securing the airfield doesn’t begin at the perimeter fence and only go inward.

A primary responsibility of government is to protect its citizens, which is what the FAA said it was doing when it restricted flights into Ben Gurion. But this is not the first time the government has put American’s on notice about flying into countries it believes are dangerous for US citizens. In 1989, Pablo Escobar, the notorious drug smuggler, arranged for the bombing of Avianca Airlines Flight 203, in an attempt to kill a Colombian presidential candidate. The US Department of State began the process of putting Public Advisory signs at airport screening checkpoints, warning American’s about flying into certain cities that did not meet international aviation security standards (meanwhile in Colombia, the presidential candidate had changed his flight plans, unknowingly saving himself, and was later elected to office). The DOS continues to issue travel warnings for US citizens to this day, and if you look carefully, you can still spot the advisory signs at airport screening checkpoints.

To a certain extent, a short-term shutdown of Ben-Gurion airport will not have a significant economic impact. This is similar to any time an airport has to shut down for severe weather, or even an approaching hurricane. Even a more significant weather event that closes airports for more than a week or two does not typically result in a long-term detrimental impact. And when it does, the aviation industry somehow always seems to rebound. Some argue that it must rebound as US District Judge Anna Brown notes in her recently ruling against the use of the No Fly list, when she said:

“The court concludes international travel is not a mere convenience or luxury in this modern world. Indeed, for many, international travel is a necessary aspect of liberties sacred to members of a free society.”

Now that the court has ruled that aviation is essential, how should we go about protecting the flight paths of aircraft into airports near war zones and throughout the world?

The first concern is the questionable wisdom of flying commercial airliners over war zones where a lot of military ordinance is sharing the airspace with commercial flight traffic.

While many flight routes into and out of Ben Gurion are over the Mediterranean Sea, with flights not turning towards their destinations until at a higher altitude, there are several that still go over land routes, particularly those heading east or north. For any aviation security practitioner, it’s important to know the routes of these aircraft, the potential threats from air and ground, and whether the flight routings should be modified. Flight routes are as easy to find as a Google search. These is all publicly available information so anyone staking out a flight to shoot down can figure out where to set up rather easily. Meanwhile, flight-tracking software like FlightAware provides close to real-time data on the positions of aircraft that are emitting a transponder code (a radio that acts like a homing beacon).

Flight re-routes are a significant issue as most routes are well-established based on predominant wind patterns, noise abatement issues and terrain, not to mention the most efficient routes over a round surface (the globe). Aircraft can adjust their performance, such as higher climb-out angles at slower speeds to achieve more altitude before crossing potentially dangerous areas, but these modified flight procedures can reduce safety margins, burn more fuel, and overall may not be necessary if the threat is highly random.

The second concern is that focusing on protecting an aircraft from a shoot-down also goes beyond the airport perimeter and flight paths. If someone has intent to shoot down a commercial airliner, the interdiction of that plot should be taking place through the country’s intelligence and military assets long before the bad guys are taking their positions to shoot. Good threat analysis and interdiction are a critical element to aviation security.

On the day MH17 was shot down, a reporter from the BBC asked if there was anything the pilots of MH17 could have done or if they even knew that they were being targeted by a surface to air missile. In short: no. Unlike military aircraft, which are designed to be stealthy to the extent possible, in the interest of safety, civil aircraft are designed to be easily identified on radar. All commercial aircraft traveling above 18,000-feet carry transponders, which sends altitude and identifying information to radar facilities on the ground, making it easier to spot for the air traffic controller – and unfortunately, anyone with a radar-seeking missile.

Most civil aircraft don’t carry systems that would detect an incoming surface to air missile, but some do. Should they all?

El Al and several corporate aircraft have been equipped with anti-missile detection and deterrence systems. The military has used flare, chaff and laser-based systems for years on its aircraft. Both Northup and Raytheon have developed technologies that can detect an incoming missile, then direct a laser at the seeker head, which is fired automatically from a platform on the plane, to confuse the inbound threat. The missile “goes stupid,” begins chasing itself and eventually crashes. Should we equip all aircraft with this technology, at an approximate cost of $1 million per airframe?

The question is: Are these one-time incidents or is this the future?

Whether the civil aircraft fleet requires anti-missile technology is largely based on the number of innocent lives lost. The more suffering we see, the more incidents of this type occur, there more the public will cry out for protection.


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