By Kevin McCarthy
Less then a month ago, a second massive tragedy struck Malaysia Airlines: flight MH17 was shot down after the earlier disappearance of MH370 in March of this year. Both airliners were popular B777 widebody, international aircraft. The first, a mysterious situation, which may never be fully resolved, and the second, an act of criminal murder. Of the second, we may never know the identity of the perpetrators. We do know they used a sophisticated modern anti-aircraft missile system supplied by (or on loan from) Russia and either operated by (or at least supervised by) well-trained Russian military (or ex-military) personnel. Was MH17 targeted specifically, an indiscriminate act of violence, or a major tactical error with global consequences? Is this a new global threat that should keep us up at night?
Aviation industries and the flying public are definitely at risk but far less likely now from an event similar to the tragedy over Ukraine. The shoot down of MH17 is tragic and inexcusable. That said, in all likelihood, it was a black swan event – high impact, impossible-to-predict, and exceedingly rare. Western governments have been reticent to share these types of high-altitude anti-aircraft systems with client states or surrogates, for good reason. During the Soviet war in Afghanistan, the United States provided Stingers (shoulder-launched anti-aircraft missiles) to the Mujahedeen, which turned the tide of war against the Soviet Union. Subsequently, the West scrambled to retrieve those very weapons before they could be used against civilian aircraft. Stingers, unlike the system used to shoot down MH17, can only strike aircraft at altitudes up to about 14,000 feet. The Russian SA-11 Buk system used in the Ukraine can strike up to and above 70,000 feet, well beyond maximum altitude of all civilian aircraft.
Sent from Russia, and ostensibly under control of militia separatists, the Buk was used to intentionally (or unintentionally) kill innocent passengers on an aircraft flying at 33,000 feet on a heavily used air-transit route. Given the outrage and response of the United States and Europe to Russia over this event, it is unlikely they will entrust militant groups with these weapon systems in the future. The MH17 tragedy has likely made air travel more secure (not less) from this particular threat.
In reaction to the MH17 shoot down, many pundits have advocated for robust defensive countermeasures being installed on commercial airliners. This is an unrealistic and counter-productive response. No systems currently exist that can protect large vulnerable commercial airliners from Buk-like weapon systems. What does exist (and is far more realistic and productive) is a robust capability to assess new and emerging threats and risks.
That said, the airline industry matured around a culture of safety and operational excellence, not security threat analysis. This was articulated in the founding documents of the airline industry with the Convention on International Civil Aviation (Chicago Convention) December 7, 1944: Whereas … its abuse can become a threat to the general security… upon which the peace of the world depends.
Conversely, the Intelligence Community developed robust threat and risk analytical practices with little expertise or understanding of commercial airline operations. Today’s emerging threats are less from super missile systems controlled by highly trained personnel and more from the conflicts raging at ground level when airliners overfly the region. Anti-aircraft weapons in the hands of failing states (Syria, Iraq, Libya) and extremist groups (Islamic State of Syria and the Levant (ISIL), Hamas, others) can not reach the altitude of transiting airliners unless those airlines suffer a mechanical malfunction that forces them to make an emergency landing at the nearest “suitable” airfield. Radically shifting the paradigm to an undesirable outcome.
Had the responsible air operations experts been in open discussion with the risk analysis experts, this type of situation might have been avoided by managing the route planning to avoid conflict zones. This process should be empowered and taken well in advance, not when pilots and flight dispatchers are doing their final review for the flight. Global geopolitical situations are not in their area of expertise or the forefront of planning considerations. However, through collaboration, all these professionals may merge their knowledge to produce a more holistic operational plan.
Today’s major risk to aviation and the global community may more likely be a new disease vector moving at the speed of air travel around the world. Again, the airline professionals are not expert on disease monitoring and prevention. Yet, they may be responsible for inadvertently spreading or preventing an epidemic. Biosurviellance medical professionals understand how to forecast and monitor outbreaks. Collaboration with the airline industry may mitigate the global spread of disease.
Other affiliated industries are also stakeholders in preventing the spread of disease that may greatly impact their businesses. The massive luxury hotel and convention centers could be devastated with the introduction of a virulent contagion into a global population gathered at one venue. A case study might be the renowned Bellevue-Stratford Hotel in Philadelphia in July 1976 with the outbreak of Legionnaires’ Disease. Some 182 people were infected, 29 died, and by November of that year, the hotel was closed down. It was three years and a massive renovation later before the property re-opened under new ownership. This could just as easily happen to a convention facility or cruise ship today after air travelers come together in close contact, spreading an infectious disease.
Once again referencing the principals upon which the airline industry was established at the Chicago Convention and applying them to the larger community: Therefore… governments having agreed on certain principles and arrangements in order that international civil aviation may be developed in a safe and orderly manner and that international air transport services may be established on the basis of equality of opportunity and operated soundly and economically.
The ongoing risks extend beyond aviation and are not principally criminal actions by lawless thugs, although anomalies will always happen. Rather, much of the risks are things we may model, evaluate, predict and hopefully mitigate. Over the past 70 years, we have built the safest transportation system in history; the most dangerous part of air travel is still the drive to the airport. Collaboration is the key to enabling information sharing between experts from aviation operations, intelligence, biosurviellance and others in concert with the risk analysis experts of the insurance industry creating situational awareness on where and when we fly and whom we transport on a continuing basis.
Kevin McCarthy, a recognized aviation operations and security expert, is COO of MoonRaker Aviation Services, Inc., a company providing total security awareness and protection for corporations throughout their operating environment, air and land.