March 21, 2014
Where was the RMAF when MH370 disappeared?
by Mariam Mokhtar
What is the SOP for a breach of our air space? The Air Force Chief’s explanation of the radar incident exposes the poor communication between the military and civil aviation authorities
Where was the RMAF when MH370 disappeared? In any investigation, the first few hours are the most crucial, when searching for clues. In the early hours of Saturday, March 8, 2014, around the time that air traffic control lost contact with MH370, we are told that military radar detected the presence of an unidentified aircraft traversing Malaysian airspace.
What role, if any, could the RMAF have played in these crucial first few hours? Was precious time wasted in the search for MH370? Five days after MH370 went missing, the Chief of the RMAF, Rodzali Daud, finally acknowledged that the Malaysian Air Torce had radar information which may have had some bearing on the aeroplane.
All the while, we have seen a confused response from the authorities, ranging from retraction of statements and denials, to people giving the impression that they were withholding information. When MH370 veered off course and was possibly picked up on military radar, what did Rodzali do? He justified the delay in announcing the military’s information, because of the need to check the data, with the experts.
That is understandable, but in times of warfare, would it take several days? Military radar showed that an unidentified aircraft was around 200 nautical miles north west of Penang, and at 29,500 feet above sea level. When MH370 went missing, the transponders and all communications equipment were not working.
It is curious that the radar operators knew it was a civilian plane but did not think to check with the civil aviation authorities. So, what is the standard operating procedure (SOP) for a breach of our air space? When asked why fighters had not been scrambled to intercept the unidentified aircraft, Rodzali said that radar operators had recognised it as a civilian aircraft.
How did the radar operators know it was a civilian aircraft and was not hostile? What is the definition of hostile used by the radar operators? Will an unidentified plane be considered hostile only if the plane is armed? Can the radar man confirm hostility by looking at his screen? The Boeing 777 is an enormous plane and fast. The C-130 and other military transporter planes are also big and bulky, but they are slower than the sleek Boeing.
Rodzali said: “It is not classified as hostile. We only do an intercept or respond when they are classified as hostile.” The two jets which smashed into the twin towers in New York may not have carried missiles, but the aircraft were used as weapons. So, how could Rodzali confidently say the plane was not hostile. His response is far from satisfactory and is like an invitation for any plane, hostile or friendly, to pass unchallenged through our air space.
All planes must file a flight plan with the civilian aviation authorities, avoiding no-go areas. Aircraft straying into that air-space will be contacted by radio, and then escorted away. If the pilot refuses to comply, he risks an aerial engagement. Did the RMAF contact the civilian aviation authorities and confirm the flight plan of the aeroplane?
Rodzali’s explanation of the radar incident exposes the poor communication between the military and civil aviation authorities. A quick phone call by the air force to Subang would have sufficed. An air force officer of sufficient rank could have decided to scramble a jet to investigate. It does not matter if someone had to be awoken. In addition, the chief of the armed forces, Zulkifeli Mohd Zin, made further confusing remarks.
After claiming that the unidentified aircraft was first noticed in the spot where MH370 was known to have disappeared, he said, “We sent some ships immediately from Lumut that particular night to where we suspected that aircraft would be. That morning at first light, we sent a C-130 (aircraft) immediately to scout the area. It is a possibility (that MH370 is there) and at the slightest possibility, I must respond for the sake of the passengers on MH370.”
Zulkifeli’s remarks seem to suggest that he thought an aircraft had come down somewhere in the Strait of Malacca, and yet, Najib Tun Razak had directed the search and rescue (SAR) mission to be conducted in the Gulf of Thailand. Does Zulkifeli know something we don’t?
It is baffling that Zulkifeli was prepared to send the ships from Lumut, which is south of Penang, but he did not see the need to send a jet, as soon as the unidentified aircraft entered our air space. It is clear that the air force has messed-up and wasted an opportunity to solve the mystery of the unidentified aircraft. It is imperative that military and civil aviation authorities improve communications with one another.
The RMAF should spend more time on defence of the nation, instead of being a government lackey which protects the interests of UMNO-Baru. The persecution of Major Zaidi Ahmad for making a police report on the indelibile ink used in GE-13 is a prime example of the displaced loyalty of the RMAF. If only the armed forces would get their priorities right.