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Last updated: March 18, 2014 11:24 pm
The hunt for Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 now depends on the willingness of governments and the military across Asia to hand over potentially sensitive radar and satellite data.
Satellite data provided by London-based company Inmarsat has been crucial, but not enough in pinpointing the aeroplane’s whereabouts. The Boeing airliner’s last communication was with an Inmarsat satellite at 08.11 on the morning of March 8, over seven hours after it took off from Kuala Lumpur on a flight to Beijing with 239 people on board. Without other data, investigators are unable to plot where it went next.
But with scant history of international co-operation on intelligence sharing – and in some cases outright hostility – there are reasons to doubt whether Malaysia will get the data it needs as it leads a 26-country search for the aircraft 10 days after it disappeared.
There are some signs that the co-operation between law enforcement agencies has been more robust, especially between Malaysia and the US. “When the Malaysians established the command post for the missing plane, the FBI was invited into the command post the very night of the disappearance. From the first hour,” says Tom Fuentes, a former assistant director at the Federal Bureau of Investigation. “The relationship with the Royal Malaysian Police is phenomenal. They have a long outstanding relationship with the FBI.”
The search involves two corridors stretching from Kazakhstan and Pakistan in the north, across India and to southeast Asia and Australia in the south.
“If we are talking about a multilateral effort that relies on sharing of intelligence, I think we are in uncharted waters. Information and intelligence sharing is always a very sensitive issue,” said Ian Storey, senior fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore.
The search has now widened from an initial stretch of the South China Sea to a vast area of ocean measuring more than 2m square nautical miles and land roughly equal to two-thirds of the landmass of the continental US. Malaysia has asked countries for radar data, as well as satellite data and analysis.
The hope is that this, together with the Inmarsat information, will allow investigators to plot the airliner’s last trajectory – although Malaysia Airlines has confirmed it had only 30 minutes of fuel left when it was last in contact with the Inmarsat satellite, at a point over the northern Strait of Malacca. In some cases, countries will be asked if their military has radar data that could help.
But with information sharing between military authorities generally only taking place on a bilateral basis, analysts say some countries may hold back key data.
“Generally, military intelligence sharing among southeast Asian states has been minimal – the prevailing strategic uncertainties coupled with political distrust, resource constraints and varying technological capabilities have precluded military transparency,” said Michael Raska of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.
Malaysia says it has already gone much further than it normally would in releasing raw data from its military radars. On Tuesday, Hishammuddin Hussein, defence and acting transport minister, reiterated that Malaysia had “put our search effort above our national security” in doing so. Asked if other countries had come forward with data, he said some had but declined to say what they had offered: “The only one [country] that is basically out in the open is Malaysia.”
The US and its allies in the region do share satellite technology under a “Five Eyes” programme in which intelligence services of the US, UK, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada monitor and share almost all data. But there is virtually no history of such sharing between Malaysia and China, whose nationals account for two-thirds of passengers on flight MH370.
“Military-to-military relations between the two are paper thin, it’s much more substantive between Malaysia and the US and has been for some time, especially since the 9/11 attacks,” Mr Storey said.
If we are talking about a multilateral effort that relies on sharing of intelligence, I think we are in uncharted waters. Information and intelligence sharing is always a very sensitive issue
- Ian Storey, Institute of Southeast Asian Studies
While China has been critical of Malaysia’s handling of the crisis, citing slow release of information and “confusion”, it was on Tuesday being more conciliatory.
The country’s ambassador to Malaysia said the two countries were now sharing a lot of information “with nothing being hidden”, according to reports by Chinese journalists at a briefing in the Malaysian capital. Indeed, other diplomats in Kuala Lumpur have been playing down the challenges posed by rivalries and secrecy among defence communities, pointing out that the operation to find the aircraft is on an unprecedented scale.
“This is about aviation safety, not national security,” said one European military attaché in Kuala Lumpur.
But for Malaysia, there has already been a cost in revealing its sensitive military radar data – and a potential new source of business for companies that sell such systems. “After this we will need to re-look [at] upgrading our radar system,” Mr Hishammuddin said.
Additional reporting by Christine Spolar in Washington
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