Threats of a technological over-reaction to the Malaysia 17 shoot-down over Ukraine

July 22, 2014
THE MIL & AERO BLOG, 22 July 2014. The tragedy surrounding the downed Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 keeps getting stranger and stranger, with accusations flying freely yet no real information on who might have been at fault.
THE MIL & AERO BLOG, 22 July 2014. The tragedy surrounding the downed Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 keeps getting stranger and stranger, with accusations flying freely yet no real information on who might have been at fault.

Last Thursday the Malaysia Boeing 777 jumbo jet cruising at 33,000 feet en-route from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur was shot down over contested territory in Eastern Ukraine by a version of a Russian-designed SA-17 surface-to-air missile fired from a Buk launcher. All 295 aboard the stricken jet were killed.

Still no word about who was responsible. The Ukrainian government blames Russian-backed separatists engaged in civil in Eastern Ukraine for the shootdown, the separatists are blaming the Ukrainian government, and everyone seems to be casting a wary look in the direction of Russia to place at least some of the responsibility for the aviation disaster.

With the incident nearly a week old now, we're deep in the throes of international reaction to the disaster. The bodies of victims allegedly remained in fields inside houses where they crashed through roofs for days before being moved. There's controversy over who has the aircraft black boxes that might shed light on the disaster. Pundits are all over the story, and everyone is having his or her say.

Related: 777 jumbo jet flying straight and level at 33,000 feet over Ukraine no match for SA-17 missile

One aspect of the disaster's aftermath that worries me, however, are calls to require sophisticated missile-defense systems for civil jetliners of the type found on military aircraft.

I'm all for keeping civilian airline passengers safe from threats that be directed their way from the ground, but such a requirement for missile defenses aboard civilian jetliners would be an over-reaction that could place a heavy financial and technological burden on the world's air carriers and airline passengers alike.

Airline travel today is expensive. Air carriers are hard pressed to keep their aircraft in safe working order as it is while keeping ticket prices affordable enough to keep their airplane cabins filled. Add the costs of buying, installing, testing, certifying, and maintaining missile-defense systems to the mix and who knows how high the price of an airline ticket might go.

Even with missile defenses on board, furthermore, there is no guarantee that a commercial jetliner could defeat a surface-to-air missile. Aircraft missile defenses often require not only quick detection and countermeasures deployment at just the right time, but also can require the pilot to take sometimes-violent evasive action to ensure the missile doesn't hit its mark.

Related: Vanished Malaysia 370: anybody know what happened to that plane?

Are civil airlines and their pilots really up to this kind financial and technological challenge? Seriously, wouldn't it be safer and far less expensive simply to fly over safe areas where the threat of ground-to-air missiles is practically non existent? I have to question the wisdom of the crew of Malaysia 17 for flying over a known war zone.

Then there's the question of technology. There essentially are two kinds of anti-aircraft missiles, those with radar guidance, and those with heat-seeking infrared guidance. If airlines are to go down the road of installing missile-defense systems on their airliners, then these systems would have to be able to defend against both.

That means installing systems that are expensive and large enough to take away passenger and cargo space. That cuts directly into profits, not to mention the expenses of certifying and maintaining missile-defense systems, as well as training air crews to use them properly.

Related: Bluefin-21 UUV set this week to make another deep dive in efforts to locate missing Malaysia 370

Shoulder-fired missiles like the U.S. Stinger typically are used at relatively low altitudes, and represent a threat primarily to commercial aircraft departing on approach to airports. These missiles have heat-seeking warheads that home in on jet engine exhaust, and defending against them can involve quick detection and countermeasures that involve deploying flares or directing light or laser sources directly at the incoming missile to confuse its guidance system.

Radar-guided like the Buk-launched SA-17 that allegedly downed Malaysia 17 over Ukraine last week represent a different threat altogether. Defending against these missiles can involve deploying chaff -- essentially pieces of aluminum foil -- to confuse the missile's radar. It also can involve sophisticated electronic warfare capability to jam the missile's radar transmitter.

It's all complicated and expensive, and I just don't know if it's a job for the world's commercial airlines. My recommendation is to avoid over-reacting to the Malaysia 17 disaster in a way that would overburden commercial air carriers.

About the Author

John Keller | Editor

John Keller is editor-in-chief of Military & Aerospace Electronics magazine, which provides extensive coverage and analysis of enabling electronic and optoelectronic technologies in military, space, and commercial aviation applications. A member of the Military & Aerospace Electronics staff since the magazine's founding in 1989, Mr. Keller took over as chief editor in 1995.

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