BANGKOK, Thailand — For the conspiracy minded, the idea that missing Malaysia Airlines’ flight MH370 could have veered over mainland Asia is tantalizing.
Satellite data suggests two potential routes for the missing jet, which appears to have gone rogue during a flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing.
One trajectory sends the plane southward past Indonesia and over an ocean abyss adjacent to Australia. This scenario is deeply unsettling: The aircraft and its 239 passengers could be submerged miles below the water’s surface. Recovery from deep waters can take years.
The other trajectory is more intriguing: a northern arc over Thailand, Myanmar, China and potentially as far as the Central Asian hinterlands. Given that Malaysian authorities deem the plane’s disappearance “deliberate,” this theory offers a flicker of hope that the jet landed somewhere — or at least crashed into land instead of difficult-to-probe ocean depths.
But this theory begs the question: Wouldn’t these countries’ air defenses spot and intercept a 770,000-pound jet careening into their military-protected skies?
Probably. But maybe not. Violating a developing country’s airspace is easier than you might imagine, experts on Asian military capabilities say.
Militaries fear attack aircraft, not commuter jets
Military radar operators in both Malaysia and Thailand believe they spotted MH370 flying off route in the wrong direction.
“But they didn’t do anything. Why? Because that’s not what they were looking for,” said Carlyle Thayer of the Australian Defense Force Academy.
Radar operators are trained to detect fast-moving fighter aircraft from rival militaries. Not civilian planes, which fill the skies at all hours. Like the Sept. 11 attacks, the MH370 mystery is so “outside the box” Thayer said, that it defies typical surveillance conventions.
“Just look at 9/11,” said Ian Storey, a security expert at Singapore’s Institute of Southeast Asian Studies. “Nobody knew the aircraft were headed towards those targets. And that was in the most technologically powerful country on earth.”
The theorized northern route sends the jet through nations with rudimentary militaries (Myanmar and Laos), moderately advanced forces (Thailand) and sophisticated air defenses (China and Afghanistan).
China’s military has fortified radar positions along its urbanized east coast, a vitally important stretch facing US military bases in Korea and Japan. There is less cause for vigilance in its western hinterlands — which fall along the northern route.
Still, blowing through that region’s air defenses would he extremely difficult. As one expert told the New York Times: “Everything would have to go your way.”
Aviation expert Jay Carmel of the Avascent aerospace consulting firm told GlobalPost that piercing China’s defenses would be wildly unlikely. Nearing Afghanistan — protected by American air defenses — would be even harder.
“But there are so any weird things that had to have happened in this case,” Carmel said, “that you cannot discount the northern route completely.”
Most countries can’t scramble jets quickly
Ideally, any military detecting forbidden aircraft would like to deploy fighter jets within minutes to chase off the threat or blow it out of the sky.
Many of the nations along MH370’s theoretical northern path — Malaysia, Thailand, China — are capable of this. They have the radar. They have the jets. That doesn’t mean they could actually could pull it off every time.
“It’s difficult to scramble fighters,” Storey said. “You need aircraft ready and fueled on the tarmac at all times. Very few countries have that.” Keeping jets at the ready is also a major expenditure of cash and personnel for a highly unlikely event: airborne invasion.
“Even on 9/11, it took a long time for the US Air Force to respond,” Storey said. “Now, they’ve fixed that problem. But the US has money to throw at its problems.”
Southeast Asia’s radar operators have no cause for extreme vigilance.
Asia’s various militaries don’t trust each other. Some relationships — say, between Vietnam and China — can be downright antagonistic. But the odds of air strikes between rivals during peace time are absurdly low.
“When threat conditions are low and have been low for years,” Thayer said, “defenses become lax.”
Some regions, such as the barely populated Andaman Sea controlled by India, are so void of threats that Indian officials sometimes turn off radar to save money, according to Reuters. A skilled pilot would have the knowhow to avoid military hotspots and stick to a loosely monitored route.
No nation wants to admit its airspace was invaded
Blowing through a nation’s air defenses without permission sends a message to all its potential adversaries: This nation’s skies can be violated.
This is more than a national security risk. It’s also a huge loss of face.
“It would be hugely embarrassing,” Storey said. “Especially in a post-9/11 era when countries are supposed to have tightened surveillance of air space. The US has provided developing countries with a lot of assistance in this area. But there’s a limit to what they can actually cover.”
Militaries are inherently proud and secretive. Most would be inclined to conceal or at least downplay an invasion of their sovereignty if they could get away with it — especially if the intruding aircraft came and went without doing harm.
“It wouldn’t surprise me,” Storey said, “if aircraft regularly pass through countries’ airspace without permission and nothing happens.”
But Thayer doesn’t believe any Asian military would be cagey or callous enough to hide information about an MH370 landed or crashed on its turf.
Officials would probably only conceal this in bizarre circumstances.
Example: The jet lands in Taliban territory and special forces want to throw its captors off their scent. “For operational reasons,” he said, “you’d want strategic deception. You’d want to look bumbling, stupid and disorganized” to pacify the enemy before retrieving passengers.