Maritime Domain Lessons from MH370

17M-Missing plane search MAP.jpg

I’ve been laying low on social media concerning MH370 (in addtion to the personal reasons). Seems like everywhere I go someone is going to ask me “what do you think happened to the aircraft?” or better yet, “how can you lose an airplane”).  I haven’t been able to go out for the past couple of weeks without being asked just once about MH370.

Frankly before we have evidence, I have no idea. The first and foremost point I try to make is that the ocean is a BIG place. To those of you on the coasts this isn’t new but those of us (here in flyover country) without exposure to the maritime domain, I think really don’t concieve just how BIG the ocean really is.

All the black area is ocean!

It’s not enough to be told in school that combined the oceans cover 2/3 of the surface of the planet. Below is a picture of the USS Harry S. Truman, a Nimitz Class nuclear powered aircraft carrier. There are amongst the largest movable man-made objects on the planet. According to Wikipedia the Nimitz class ships measure 1,092 feet overall and have flight decks that measure about 4.5 acres.

That's a HUGE ship!
That’s a HUGE ship!

The Truman seems immense when compared to the buildings in the background! But let’s take another look at the Nimitz class seen in the vastness of the ocean:

Or is it? There are 3 Nimitz class aircraft carriers here.
Or is it?

I know quite a few Naval Aviators that tell me the same thing about their first arrested landing and that’s, “it looked so small” and indeed it does.

Let’s go to MH370. MH370 is a Boeing 777-200ER twin turbofan powered aircraft carrying about 250 passengers. The -200ER has a length of 209ft 1in and a wingspan of 199ft 11in.

The 777 less than 1/5th the length of the Nimitz Class aircraft carrier. Keeping that in mind you can see the problem finding the aircraft in the vast ocean, let alone any wreackage (and that’s not even taking ocean currents, weather, etc into account).

That's a big airplane! A Malaysian Airlines 777-200ER.
That’s a big airplane! A Malaysian Airlines 777-200ER.

Hopefully, this will give you an idea about just how easy it is to lose what we perceive as large objects in the vast ocean. It’s the proverbial needle in a haystack.

Look at all that ocean.
Look at all that ocean.

The vast ocean makes MH370 hard to find, also makes it easy to hide a Carrier Strike Group (CSG). That brings me to an interesting article over at the Naval War College Review: “Maritime Deception and Concealment.”

The uninformed reader might think that in the age of global satellite converage it would be diffcult to hide a Carrier Strike Group (CSG) in the ocean but this isn’t the case. CSGs can undertake active and passive measures to deny an enemy the ability to target them.

Passive measures can include EMCON:

The most commonly practiced maritime tactic is emission control (EMCON). Maritime forces typically restrict their radio frequency (RF) emissions and configure shipboard systems to limit acoustic emissions when operatinf in contested areas; platforms tasked with active sensor searches in support of forces in EMCON are positioned so that the former’s emissions do not reveal the latter’s general location. As repeatedly demonstrated by the US Navy against the Soviet Ocean Surveillance System (SOSS) during the Cold War, EMCON measures can severaly constrain if not eliminate the usefulness of wide area passive sonar and RF direction-finding or electronic intelligence (ELINT) sensors for surveillance and reconnaissance. EMCON does not necessarily imply complete silence; highly directional line-of-sight communications and difficult-to-intercept “middleman” relays (satellites or aircraft) can provide critical command and coordination links. Even so, it does represent a deep cut to the force’s normally avaiable bandwidth. Effective EMCON therefore requires decentralized doctrine that embraces unit-level initiative in executing the forces commander’s intentions, as well as preplanned and frequently practiced responses to foreseeable situations.

Even weather can be used to limit the effectiveness of different deployed sensors:

Sufficiently dense haze and cloud cover reduces vulnerability to infrared (IR) and visual-band electro-optical (EO) sensors. Precipitation similarly reduces EO/IR sensor effectiveness and, depending on wavelength and clutter rejection capabilities, sometimes radar as well. Atmospheric layering can cause radar emissions to be so refracted as to render nearby surface units and aircraft undetectable. Highly variable diurnal ionospheric conditions can likewise degrade shore-based over-the-horizon-backscatter (OTH-B) radars. Heavy seas, however unconfortable for crews, increase the background clutter OTH-B radars must sift through, as well as the ambient noise that complicates passive sonar search.

I highly recommend reading the entire article. Learn about how a CSG can sometimes easily delay dectection by an enemy. Think about the different factors and limitations of various sensors and environmental factors effect tactics employed in a wartime search. All these factors are also applicable to a peacetime search and rescue/recovery.

Many of these limitations apply  to the non-combat SAR environment as well and that’s the lesson that I come away with from MH370.



1 thought on “Maritime Domain Lessons from MH370”

  1. It is enough to drive one nuts. When I say “It’s a really, really big ocean.” People are all like, “radar, satellites, etc. etc.” Until you’ve been out there, in the middle of that ocean, you really have no idea. That includes the coastal types who seldom get out of sight of land. I feel your pain Spill!

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