In MH370, military should have learned from 9-11, says ex-airman

by Muzliza Mustafa
The Malaysian Insider
8 March 2015

When Malaysia Airlines (MAS) flight MH370 vanished on March 8 last year, many believed the mystery as to its whereabouts could have been prevented had the Malaysian military scrambled jets to investigate an unknown aircraft its radar was tracking across the northern part of the peninsula.

It is still unclear whether any official has been held to account for this lapse in judgment, as questions posed to ministers have been sidestepped.

Former Royal Malaysian Air Force pilot Maj Zaidi Ahmad said the lack of military action at the time stressed the need to change and update certain standard operating procedure (SOP) for the military, as well as for military-civilian cooperation.

This should have been done following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in New York, but the Malaysian military maintained a “lackadaisical” attitude, said Zaidi, who had been a fighter pilot for more than 20 years.

“The 9-11 incident proved that anything can happen and we should be prepared. After 9-11 there was still no SOP between the military and commercial airlines. We should be taking note of things that happen in other countries and be cautious,” Zaidi told The Malaysian Insider.

He was recently sacked from the force for whistleblowing on the indelible ink used in the 2013 general election. Zaidi was found to have broken protocol by going public and telling the media that the ink washed off easily, thus compromising the integrity of the election.

Zaidi said exercises should be conducted between the military and commercial airlines so that any threats involving aircraft could be addressed quickly and smoothly.

“There are many theories and speculation on what happened to MH370. It could be anything, it could be hijacking, but there is no proper SOP between the military and the commercial aircraft operator to streamline the communication for faster action,” he added.

His comments reflect the content of a recent paper by the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) that the Malaysian military’s delay in communicating information about the unidentified plane on its radar had resulted in valuable time lost in search and rescue (SAR) operations for MH370.

It was around 20 hours later before civil aviation authorities were informed and a week before the information was publicly released, the paper titled “ICAO brief on the SAR response to MH370” said.

The paper was presented at the Third Meeting of the Asia/Pacific Regional Search and Rescue Task Force in the Maldives in January.

The paper also noted that improvements were needed on the cooperation between civil aviation and military authorities for the Asia-Pacific search and rescue plan.

This was because Thai military radar had also tracked MH370 as it flew west and then northwest over the Andaman sea, but had received no advice on whether action should be taken.

“It is apparent that a higher degree of Malaysian civil/military coordination may have revealed the possibility of the MH370 course reversal much earlier after the initial alert advice from Vietnam, and as the hypothesised track also crossed Thailand’s PSR coverage, advice to Thailand may have also proved beneficial.

“In essence, a week or more was lost in the initial search because of poor civil/military cooperation,” ICAO said.

Zaidi said Malaysia could not afford to lower its guard just because the country was in peace time.

“Just because we are not involved in any war with anybody, it does not mean we should be careless about protecting our country or preparing ourselves to counter any threats.

“Certain SOP in the military also needs to be changed as the current situation requires us to be alert all the time. Even during peace time, we should be on our toes all the time,” said Zaidi.

One SOP that he felt ought to be changed was the two hours given to pilots to be ready and report to base upon receiving orders.

“This should not be the case. This kind of SOP needs to be revised. We should have our pilots ready at all times although we are not at war or under any kind of threat.”

Zaidi said he did not know whether any official inquiry had been conducted after it was found that Malaysian military radar detected the plane but did not scramble jets to investigate it.

He had been stationed at the Butterworth Airbase, where primary surveillance radar had detected MH370 flying near Pulau Perak after making an air turn-back from its supposed course towards Beijing.

He was already suspended from flying at the time for breaching military protocol over the indelible ink fiasco, pending the hearing in a court martial.

The Malaysian Insider sought a response from the RMAF on the radar fiasco and whether action had been taken, but a senior officer with the air force said all matters related to MH370, even if involving the military, had to be channelled to the Transport Ministry. He said this instruction had been issued to all government agencies.

Transport Minister Datuk Seri Liow Tiong Lai, however, had told The Malaysian Insider in an interview ahead of the first anniversary of MH370’s disappearance, to “wait for the outcome of the investigation’s report” when asked if any Malaysian officials had been held responsible for the plane’s disappearance.

In May last year, then acting Transport Minister Datuk Seri Hishammudddin Hussein had told the Australian Broadcasting Corp in an interview that the Malaysian military had been told to keep an eye on the plane but allowed it to disappear off their radar after considering it to be non-hostile.

In the interview, Hishammuddin said the military did not send a plane up to investigate as “it was not deemed a hostile object and pointless if you are not going to shoot it down”.

MH370 was a Boeing-777 which carried 14 nationalities and an all-Malaysian cabin crew. It left the Kuala Lumpur International Airport for Beijing at 12.40am on Saturday, March 7, and made its last contact with civilian radar around 1.30am while flying above the South China Sea between the Malaysian east coast and the southern coast of Vietnam.

It then made an air turn-back in a westerly direction across the peninsula, and flew in a zig-zag pattern around Penang and then north towards the Andaman Sea, where it was last detected by Malaysian military radar.

From there, it was found to have flown on a southward path into the Indian Ocean, based on satellite data by Inmarsat.

The undersea search off the western coast of Australia and in a remote part of the southern Indian Ocean has so far only turned up a few shipping containers but no sign of the plane.

On January 29 this year, the Malaysian Department of Civil Aviation declared the plane lost in an accident and all 239 on board presumed dead. – March 8, 2015.

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