Weighing the security fallout from the downing of MH17

As Ukrainian and Russian officials continue to play the blame game, U.S. intelligence sources have confirmed that Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, which took off from Amsterdam in route to Kuala Lumpur on Thursday, was shot out of the sky by a surface-to-air missile. According to a report from CNN, an analysis of the incident concluded that the missile was likely fired by pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine. Nearly 300 people were onboard the Boeing 777 when it was downed.

While much of the immediate attention in the aftermath of this tragedy will focus on the recovery efforts and determining exactly who was responsible for firing the missile in question, there will also be longer term implications of incident on the aviation security community as a whole. Billie Vincent, a former director of civil aviation security for the Federal Aviation Administration and author of the book, "Bombers, Hijackers, Body Scanners, and Jihadists," said that in retrospect, air traffic should have been rerouted around this region. However, he said this tragedy, like so many others in aviation, was really the result of several different events.

“In this case, this airplane was on a route north of where they would normally fly through Ukraine. Of course, they couldn’t fly over Crimea because that had been prohibited airspace, but apparently it was flying 100 to 200 miles north of where it normally would have because of thunderstorms,” explained Vincent, who now serves as president and CEO of consulting firm Aerospace Services International (ASI). “From the reports I’ve heard… there were a number of other airplanes in route through the area.”

In the wake of MH17 being shot down, the FAA on Thursday issued an order prohibiting U.S. airlines from flying over eastern Ukraine. The agency said that carriers have voluntarily agreed not to operate in the airspace near the Russia-Ukraine border.  The order is an expansion of the one it previously issued in April barring flights over the Crimean region of Ukraine over concerns related to air traffic control in the area. The International Civil Aviation Organization, a branch of the United Nations, also recently issued a warning to airlines to avoid the area. The downing of MH17 occurred outside of this area.

“ICAO recently issued a State letter advising States and their air operators of a potentially unsafe situation arising from the presence of more than one air traffic services provider in the Simferopol Flight Information Region (FIR). The loss of MH17 occurred outside of the Simferopol FIR and ICAO stands ready to support the accident investigation upon request,” the ICAO said in a statement.

While it is unlikely that MH17 was targeted intentionally, anytime you have a conflict of this magnitude there is always a threat present to passenger aircraft in the area. In fact, over the past several weeks, the pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine experienced success in shooting down a military transport plane and a fighter jet.   

“To the person that has a hammer, everything looks like a nail,” said Vincent. “Any separatists in possession of that type of missile technology, they had a hammer and every airplane coming through the route toward them probably looked like a military threat. And while civilian airliners always have a unique and distinct transponder code, when you put something in the hands of a militant group that has the capability of operating a sophisticated anti-aircraft missile system, they don’t necessarily have the knowledge or the inclination to go to great lengths to distinguish what they’re going to be shooting at. It was obvious that this airplane was a civil plane in the worldwide aviation and air traffic control network, but the question is would these separatists have the sophistication and knowledge of the overall aviation system?”

Although some people will inevitably bring up the notion of equipping airliners with anti-missile systems, Vincent says the costs of implementing such a solution would be tremendous and that there’s no guarantee these systems would be effective several years down the road.

“The problem with that is there are a number of guidance systems in these missiles and the moment you put in a missile defense system, which is a very expensive process, the designer of these missile systems will then seek new guidance methods and processes to defeat the technology you put in,” added Vincent. “Even if you’re partially successful as the Israelis, who have supposedly put these systems on some of their airplanes, there will always be people developing technology intended to defeat your counter-missile system.”

Vincent, who was a consultant on the installation of security systems going into a new Boeing 747 being built for a head of state in the Middle East during the late 80s, said that one of things they wanted to implement was a full anti-missile system. However, when the U.S. looked into deploying similar technology on commercial airplanes several years ago, it was determined that this wouldn’t be cost-effective to deploy on a mass scale.  

“That system was so power hungry at that time that you had to shut down many non-essential safety systems when you were running it on take-off and landing. Technology is far-advanced from what that was in 1987 and here four or five years ago, the U.S. was the lead country in the world in examining the potential of putting anti-missile systems on U.S. commercial airplanes and obviously that would have been adopted by several of the international fleets,” Vincent said. “But the decision was eventually that after they ran two different research groups on different technologies, they decided that the risks versus the potential capability of countering the risks wasn’t cost-effective and wasn’t effective enough to equip the commercial fleet.”       

Of course, the downing of MH17 is not the first time that a civilian jetliner has been shot down as the result of military action. In 1983, Korean Air Lines Flight 007 flying from New York to Seoul was shot down by a Soviet fighter jet. Five years later, Iran Air Flight 655 traveling from Bandar Abbas, Iran to Dubai was shot down by a surface-to-air missile fired from the deck of the USS Vincennes. While there has already been a call for an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council as a result of this incident, Vincent believes that civilian aviation authorities like the aforementioned ICAO will be meeting in the coming weeks which will likely result in the commissioning of a technical study about what can be done to prevent this from occurring in the future.

“The problem is going to be the political aspect. The Russians will deny that this was their responsibility, first by saying the separatists didn’t do it, claiming it was the Ukrainians to the point they can longer deny that and then (Russian President Vladimir) Putin will be finally forced to acknowledge it was separatists, but again they will say, ‘you can’t blame the separatists because the plane shouldn’t have been in that area,’” said Vincent. “That will be their out, but the condemnation will be so great internationally that it will probably neutralize (Putin’s) plans for the acquisition of parts of eastern Ukraine. To do anything about this, it’s going to take the efforts of the 191-nation ICAO group and the condemnation of these separatists over their indiscriminate activity in not doing their due diligence before they fire one of these sophisticated missiles in making damn sure what they’re firing at is a legitimate target.”

Vincent believes that the shooting down of MH17 will have an impact on the ever-evolving threat landscape in aviation security, however, what that might be is hard to pinpoint at this time.

“I see it driving more of a political solution to the problem as opposed to a technological one,” concluded Vincent. “One is to avoid areas of conflict and two, the round condemnation that Russia is going to receive as a result of this is going to be such… is that the stigma that is placed on this is going to be more a solution than a technical one.”

Click here to read a full commentary from Vincent about the repercussions of the shooting down of MH17. 

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