Flight MH17 – could technology and intelligence have prevented tragedy?
Since the shooting down of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 over Ukraine in July, there have been international calls for commercial airliners to be fitted with military-style missile defence equipment as standard to avoid a similar catastrophe happening again. Could existing technology have prevented such an incident, and what other procedural and legislative measures could keep passengers and aircrew safe?
Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 (MH17) was en route to Kuala Lumpur from Amsterdam in July 2014 when it was shot down over Ukraine near the Russian border, killing 283 passengers and 15 crew members. Evidence points to pro-Russian separatists having mistakenly targeted the aircraft with a Buk surface-to-air missile during a battle in the region of Shaktarsh when the Armed Forces of Ukraine attempted to cut off supply lines to Russia.
The cold facts do little to mask the human tragedy of flight MH17, and an outraged international community wants to know why civil airliners cannot be fitted with the same level of technology that protects military aircraft. Just as significantly, could the mass of airspace intelligence that is available have been used to ensure that advice was issued for all commercial aircraft to avoid the area over Ukraine altogether?
Is missile defence for civilian airliners a viable option?
Missile defence technology designed especially for civil airliners has been around for several years. In 2007, Saab brought to market the world's first countermeasures system designed to protect commercial aircraft from shoulder-launched heat-seeking missiles, which, years before the Ukraine crisis, were already presenting an increasing threat to aircraft operating in hazardous areas.
Saab's solution, Civil Aircraft Missile Protection System (CAMPS), allows for civil certification and also meets military requirements for aircraft protection. Designed to enhance the survivability of civilian aircraft in the event of an attack by a man portable air defence missile (MANPADS), CAMPS derives from SAAB's combat proven full-spectrum self-protection system called Integrated Defensive Aids Suite (IDAS).
CAMPS uses the same passive ultra violet (UV) based missile approach warning system (MAWS) as IDAS, but uses electro-mechanical countermeasures which dispense pyrophoric (igniting spontaneously in air) decoys specifically developed for the civil market with less harsh characteristics than military pyrotechnical flares. The MAWS detects UV light emitted from the rocket plume of an approaching infrared guided missile and automatically initiates a dispense sequence of decoys at an optimum distance to ensure that even the fastest missiles do not approach too close. Self-contained and only needing access to the aircraft's electrical power supply, the 30kg unit fits flush to the aircraft skin and is controlled by one central unit and one cockpit control panel.
In recent years the Afghanistan conflict has shaped European unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) policy.
While effective against the same threats as military alternatives, CAMPS is considered a civil product and is compliant with the requirements of the Wassenaar Arrangement, which promotes transparency and greater responsibility in transfers of conventional arms and dual-use goods and technologies. This means it is not subject to International Traffic in Arms Regulations, so an aircraft fitted with CAMPS is not restricted by any export regulations.
As CAMPS is excluded from the agreement's list of military products, it may only be installed on civilian aircraft. Moreover, it is a third of the price of existing military systems performing the same task, and could even reduce the insurance premiums for airlines operating in high risk areas. It is European Aviation Safety Agency certified as safe for use by European airlines.
Among the first customers for CAMPS was a special mission cargo operator, and it has since been installed on aircraft ranging from the Embraer 120 and C-130 turboprop aircraft to Boeing 737 and 747 aircraft.
Would CAMPS have saved MH17?
CAMPS has been proven to be effective against the most widely proliferated Generation 1 and 2 MANPADS. But in the context of MH17, the key problem with CAMPS and similar solutions available to commercial airlines is that missiles like Buk are not MANPADS, and they not designed to protect against attacks by such lethal military systems.
"It is technologically possible to protect civil airliners against Buk type threats using the current military technology self-protection systems available today," said a Saab spokesperson. "But military equipment export policies prohibit the use of military equipment on civilian platforms. Prior to the tragic MH17 event, it was considered unthinkable for a civilian aircraft to be engaged by a sophisticated radar guided anti-aircraft system."
In other words, military-grade countermeasures designed to defend against threats that should only be posed to military aircraft can only be fitted to military aircraft.
Collaborative airspace data
So, as a commercial airliner, MH17 could not have been fitted with a defence system that would have been effective against a Buk strike, but should it have been flying over such dangerous airspace in the first place? Part of the problem is that risks are reported nationally rather than internationally, and airlines have their own guidelines on how to respond to them.
National authorities have an obligation to notify airspace users of any risks in their airspace by issuing a Notice to Air Men (NOTAM) giving coordinates of danger zones. However, in a civil conflict where airspace is disputed, it can be difficult to get the information disseminated to air crew. In the case of MH17, the Ukrainian authorities had issued a NOTAM. The International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) also issued more general information, but it focused more on the ongoing situation in Crimea; both Russian and Ukrainian authorities were trying to deliver air traffic control services in a similar area, making it potentially confusing for pilots.
In light of the Ukraine-issued NOTAM, some international carriers including British Airways, Air France and US carriers decided to avoid the airspace altogether, but others, including Malaysian Airlines, decided it was safe to traverse at heights of over 30,000ft, where it would have been safe against MANPADS but not from weapons like Buk.
To avoid a tragedy like MH17 happening in future, could the national information be combined and shared, and a consensus advice issued to all airlines? According to a UK Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) spokesperson, there is talk among airlines about engaging more with ICAO for flight tracking rather than relying solely on national authorities. However, that is easier said than done - agencies are not always keen to share information, and it would be difficult to decide the appropriate body to oversee it.
As far as ensuring flights stick to safe airspace, each airline is responsible for checking the local NOTAM information available for its routes from its local aviation authorities; detailed information on the ground in other countries is not available. Airlines must work with Eurocontrol, the agency that helps coordinate air traffic among European nations, and the CAA-equivalent bodies in the countries that the airlines are flying through. There is currently no international body responsible for ensuring civil flights stay on a safe route; it is the responsibility of the airline to check all the information from the different authorities before their flight and then make decisions based on that.
Given the restrictions against installing military equipment on civil aircraft and the lack of an international consensus on declaring airspace safe, little could have been done to completely prevent the MH17 tragedy. But to stop anything like it happening in future, an international body should be assigned to create a global picture from national airspace data, and deliver consensus on whether any route is safe for civil airliners to cross. Technology alone cannot be relied on to protect civilian aircraft flying over warzones.