The use of a sophisticated SA-11 missile by Ukrainian/Russian separatists to bring down Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 has brought the threat of attacks against commercial airliners to a new level and significantly changed the game. No mere a commercial airliner flying at 33,000 feet. The problem supersedes international boundaries, and threatens air traffic around the globe. The solution may come from a surprising source.
The destruction of Malaysian Air Flight MH17 over the Ukraine by a Russian SA-11“Buk”air defense missile on July 17, 2014 took the lives of 298 passengers and crew on board from more than 11 countries. While the largest contingent was 154 Dutch nationals, there were significant numbers of Australian passengers and more than 98 participants in an international AIDS conference in Australia, among them leading researchers and a World Health Organization official. 80 children lost their lives. One Australian family lost relatives on both Flights MH17 and MH370. The Boeing 777-200ER was a sister aircraft to Flight MH370 that disappeared on March 8, 2014 under mysterious circumstances with the loss of 12 Malaysian crew members and 227 passengers from 14 nations.
That act, allegedly by Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine, may have been a blunder by Russian President Putin that brought Western approbation at the UN Security Council debates on July 18th. The possible complicit involvement of Russia in the missile attack on MH17 is reminiscent of the shoot down by Russian fighters of Korean Air Line Flight 007 from New York to Seoul on September 1, 1983 with the 269 men, women and children on board. Also recall the accidental missile attack by the USS Vincennes guided missile cruiser that destroyed Iran Air 655 on July 3, 1988 during the Tanker War of 1984-1988 in the Persian Gulf, with the loss of 290 on board, including 66 children and 16 crew.
The Downing of MH17
The alleged Russian SA-11 missile attack on MH17 raised the matter of airline security in an era with increased threats to international civil aviation from irredentist and terrorist forces. Those threats are not only in the Middle East and Eastern European conflict zones, but elsewhere, including the Western Hemisphere.
The Malaysian Air dispatcher and the flight captain could have judiciously altered the flight plan of MH17 to avoid the no-fly zone over the eastern Ukraine. They could have used more southerly routes followed by major carriers like British Air, Air France, KLM, Lufthansa to reach destinations in South Asia. Instead they chose to fly above the contested eastern Ukraine no-fly zone at an altitude of 33,000 feet. By doing so, they exposed the flight to a missile attack from a mobile SA-11 missile battery similar to one used to down a Ukrainian military transport and fighters. By foolishly opting to economize fuel consumption on a shorter and more dangerous flight plan, they may have inadvertently triggered the deadly attack. The two Malaysian Air disasters in 2014, MH370 in March and MH17 in July, have claimed the lives of 537 passengers and crew. Under the international Montreal convention, formerly the Warsaw convention of 1929 regarding aviation liability, surviving families may be entitled to $175,000 in compensation. That would translate to $94 million if Malaysian Air is found liable.
The result was, in the words of a former National Transportation Safety Board investigator, the creation of “the world’s largest crime scene” 30 miles from the Russian border. The area patrolled by separatist militia with little respect for the remains of the deceased passengers has seriously complicated recovery and forensic investigations by NTSB and FBI agents. Standard recovery procedures have been severely compromised by looters, and the forensic operation has become chaotic. Ukraine’s government accused pro-Russian rebels of removing 38 bodies from the scene of the crash and of trying to destroy evidence. The Russian separatists have made it difficult for the Organization for Security Cooperation in Europe monitors to even approach the massive debris field.
Finding the MH17 black box and data recorder may be difficult if it has been removed from the scene, and other means may have to be used to corroborate the SA-11 missile attack. Certain data from the INMARSAT system drawn from the ill-fated flight’s engines may at least confirm altitude and flight conditions at the time of missile impact.
The Malaysian Air Flight MH17 incident sends a wake-up call to the Montreal-based UN International Civil Aviation Organization, and major country airways safety groups. These include the Federal Aviation Administration in Washington.
The incident may also lead other airlines to consider the ground-breaking anti-missile defense systems that Israel’s airlines, El Al, Arkia, and Israir are now installing on the Jewish nation’s civil aviation fleet. The SkyShield/Commercial Multi-Spectral Infrared Countermeasures (C-MUSIC) laser system was certified for use in February 2014 and was announced by Elbit Systems, Ltd. (Elbit) of Haifa, the major Israeli defense contractor that developed it.
SkyShield/C-MUSIC has the ability to deflect the guidance systems of incoming man-portable air defense systems (MANPADS), using advanced laser technology and thermal imaging to deflect incoming threats by means of jamming their guidance system, usually well before the pilot of the plane may even be aware a threat is on its way. It has the potential of also protecting the plane from high altitude surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) like the SA-11 and the more sophisticated Russian S-300 systems, which have been sold to both Syria and Iran.
Israel’s program to develop this civil aviation missile defense system was prompted by a close call in Mombasa, Kenya, when a terrorist fired a MANPAD at an Israeli Arkia Boeing 757 with 261 passengers aboard in November 2002. That led to an Israeli government-sponsored development program that chose Elbit to develop the Sky Shield system. We understand that, despite the Arab Boycott of Israel, that both Qatar Airways and Emirates Airways have reached out to Elbit seeking information on the Sky Shield system for protection of their air fleets.
According to Jane’s Defence Weekly, the Israeli government ran a series of live-fire trials of the SkyShield missile protection system in February 2014. Brigadier General Eytan Eshel, head of research and development at the Defense Ministry was very satisfied with the experiment, saying, “SkyShield has been validated under the most complex and sophisticated testing conditions ever conducted in Israel and … included a wide variety of threats that the SkyShield system would have to tackle in order to protect passenger aircraft. It is now ready to protect Israeli airlines . . . . The capabilities are extraordinary.” This brief Elbit YouTube video demonstrates how the SkyShield System operates:
The Air Defense Threat that the Elbit SkyShield System addresses
There are potentially multiple terrorist threats from MANPADS and mobile air defense missiles that could attack civilian airliners in commercial air lanes over international waters. A 2012 Defense News report pointed out more than 20,000 MANPADS went missing from the arsenals of the late Libyan dictator Gaddafi. Less than 5,000 of those have been recovered. Some of those have been interdicted in transit across Egypt, destined for Hamas in Gaza, and Salafist and al Qaeda affiliates in the Sinai. The Islamic State, formerly ISIS, may have picked up MANPADS and air defense missile systems during its blitz-like conquest of both Syria and Iraq. Not only is the region awash in weapons in the bazaar of weapons-trafficking that now exists in the Middle East, but IS has been systematically looting the stores of American weapons that had been left for the Iraqi military by the departing US forces.
An ex-CIA covert operations officer, who goes by the nom de guerre “Beowulf,” considers a MANPAD attack on vulnerable US and foreign airlines a plausible scenario in the near term. As co-author Freedman commented, “only Israel’s national airline EL AL has fully equipped its fleet” with pods capable of deflecting MANPADS. Freedman observes that Israel is particularly vulnerable to MANPAD attack, as Ben Gurion Airport, Israel’s primary international airport, is only kilometers away from the disputed West Bank, from where many of the attacks against Israel emanate. Having participated in a number of MANPADS threat exercises with DHS, the Coast Guard, FBI, TSA and other national security agencies, she underscores the seriousness of the concern. “MANPADS are a largely under-rated threat here in the US. But the threat is as real here as it is in the Middle East. MANPADs are relatively easy to acquire, transport discretely, and deploy from almost anywhere.”
In a US Aviation and Space Technology Weekly article in February 2014, Dr. Rachel Ehrenfeld discussed the MANPAD threat. She pointed out that while the US has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on development of a counter-measure, Israeli defense systems company Elbit has successfully developed and installed the light weight Multi-Spectral Infrared Countermeasure system (MUSIC) for both aircraft and helicopters. Israelis are well respected for the speed and efficiency with which they are able to develop cutting edge technology, outperforming most high tech development around the world. True to form, they developed this highly sophisticated system within three years.
Ehrenfeld was asked why the American commercial aviation industry has resisted adopting what Israel’s El Al has done to protect its air fleet and passengers:
Despite the alarming spread of MANPADS, U.S. aviation security experts argue that the threat to America’s civil aviation fleet posed by MANPADS is minimal. They say the cost of equipping passenger aircraft with MANPAD countermeasure devices–estimated at $43 billion–is prohibitive and unjustified. However, if a single missile found its way to Hezbollah operatives in Mexico, was then smuggled into the U.S. and fired at any of the 7,000 aircraft comprising the U.S. civilian fleet it would be devastated. Then, U.S. government officials and airline executives could not claim they were unaware of the threat. They could be held responsible for hundreds of deaths.
The downing of MH17 has brought the threat of attacks against commercial airliners to a new level. Because shoulder-fired MANPADS generally have a target detection range of about 6 miles, and an engagement range of 4 miles, aircraft flying above 20,000 feet are relatively safe from them. But the use of a sophisticated SA-11 missile by Ukrainian/Russian separatists has changed the game. MH17 was reported to be flying at 33,000 feet, and was brought down by a SAM.
The Israeli SkyShield/C-MUSIC system was developed to defend against multiple threats posed by MANPADS. Three general types of MANPADS use command line of sight, laser guided, and infra-red seeking technology. Whether SkyShield/C-MUSIC can also effectively deflect the longer range SAMs, such as the SA-11 or the S-300, using radar technology to hone it on its target, is not currently known. However, the technology is already in place and this new threat is not likely to go unnoticed by Israel’s defense industry. Following the downing of MH17, improvements to SkyShield/C-MUSIC will undoubtedly provide a new standard of security for the entire airplane industry.