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MH370 and three worrying 'ifs'

March 17, 2014 13:46 IST

Kuala Lumpur's delay in roping in India to help track the missing aircraft is an indicator that New Delhi must redouble its diplomacy and capacity demonstration in East Asia

It was not until Wednesday, nearly four days after Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 was lost over the South China Sea, that the Indian armed forces were activated into the search for the missing aircraft. This was well after the crucial first 48 hours and after President Pranab Mukherjee's offer of assistance.Given that the Malaysian authorities knew -- for the Royal Malaysian

Air Force's primary radars had detected an aircraft heading towards the AndamanSea -- that there was a chance that the aircraft might have flown westwards, one wishes they had requested Indian assistance much earlier.

In his press conference on Saturday, a week after the plane was reported lost, Najib Razak, Malaysia's prime minister, said that "(s)ince day one, the Malaysian authorities have worked hand-in-hand with our international partners -- including neighbouring countries [in the investigation]...", which only implies that the Malaysian authorities did not consider India a neighbouring country either.

Given that he also announced the missing plane might have gotten anywhere from the Kazakhstan-Turkmenistan border to northern Thailand --hich implies overflight or landing on Indian territory -- Kuala Lumpur's lapse was terribly unfortunate.

The underlying message is that India's Look East policy in general and the Indian navy's sustained outreach near and across the Straits of Malacca in particular still leave countries like Malaysia unpersuaded. There are reasons to believe that Malaysia is an exception, but Kuala Lumpur's delay in roping in India is an indicator that New Delhi must redouble its diplomacy, messaging and capacity demonstration in East Asia.

The human tragedy, of the uncertain fate of 239 passengers and crew on the aircraft, is bad enough. The possibility that the flight might have entered Indian maritime space, passed undetected over thousands of kilometres of Indian territory or landed somewhere across our borders is disturbing. From what we know at this time, the probability that the plane flew in India's direction is only 50 per cent (as there is an equal chance that it could have flown towards the southern Indian Ocean).

The probability that it overflew the Indian landmass is lower than that, and that of a touchdown across India's borders even more so. Even if the chances are very low, that one of the biggest aircraft in the world might have passed undetected by our armed forces in the AndamanSea and by both civilian and defence authorities over the mainland should worry us. Risk, after all, is a function of both probability and the potential loss.

The first of the three "ifs" concerns our military set-up in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. India's only tri-service theatre command, it is "charged with the responsibility for the defence of the Andaman and Nicobar territories, its air space and waters." If, and it is a big if, MH370 had indeed flown west or north-west across the Straits of Malacca, it went undetected by Indian military radars.

That is a lapse. Admiral Arun Prakash, a perspicacious former navy chief, told The Washington Post that there are only two radars there, focused on Indian airspace (not the Straits of Malacca) and they might not even be operated around the clock.

Given all the geopolitical turbulence in East Asia and intense naval activity in the vicinity of the Straits of Malacca, India cannot allow its south-eastern gates to be guarded only during daylight hours. If you can't spot a lumbering elephant, the chances are that you won't spot the quick brown fox either. If you miss a Boeing 777-200, you are likely to miss smaller, faster, lower-flying objects too. That's not a good thing for national security.

The next government must review the capacity of the Andaman and Nicobar Command and allocate enough resources to ensure that our armed forces don't miss the next bird. The second "if" involves the missing plane approaching or flying over Indian territory undetected. Yes, the plane's transponders had been turned off, and secondary surveillance systems wouldn't have detected it -- but how that aircraft could have evaded the many civilian and military primary radars across India is unfathomable.

However, if (and note that this is a bigger "if") it did pass undetected then not only are our air defences weak, our skies are more unsafe for civilian flight than we thought. Should subsequent developments raise the probability of this scenario, the management of our skies will need an urgent reappraisal.

Now for the third and most far-fetched "if". What if the plane was stolen and landed somewhere across our borders? Who might have stolen it and why? Given that there are some very bad answers to these questions, the far-fetchedness doesn't diminish the risk to national security.

Terrorism is political theatre, and if the plane had been hijacked, it makes little sense for the hijackers or their associates not to claim responsibility. One of the questions that leaves us with is: what if stealing the plane was the first act of an unfolding drama? We should hope not, but as George Shultz said, hope is not a policy.

Image: Military officer Dang Xuan Hung looks out a window of a Vietnam Air Force aircraft AN-26 during a mission to find the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370. Photograph: Kham/Reuters

Nitin Pai
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