At 0130 hours local time last Saturday, March 8th (this is being written on the 15th) a Chinese SSK, believed to be a 636 Kilo class, shot down a Malaysian airliner, Boeing 777-2H6ER, 9M-MRO, Captain Zaharie Shah in command, off the coast of South Vietnam. The Chinese murdered a total of 239 people, all the souls on board.
The Kilo surfaced but stayed hull-down, i.e. presented a low radar signature. She fired a Chinese-made copy of the excellent Hughes Aircraft AIM-54A Phoenix missile, supplied to Iran in the 1970s. The Chinese version appears to be multi-mode, with infra-red, terminal radar and semi-active homing guidance. It appears as though semi-active mode was selected. The Kilo was to the starboard of the 777’s track, possibly having sortied from the Hainan Submarine Base. Interception range appears to have been fairly short, perhaps 25 miles, well within the capabilities of the Phoenix, which famously could engage targets over 100 nautical miles from their F-14 mother-ships.
Captain Shah appears to have seen the incoming. Its exhaust trail would have been clearly visible at night. If the missile was in semi-active homing mode and he did not deactivate his radar then it would have locked on, following him as he turned back toward the Malaysian coast. The Chinese sub jammed his HF and VHF frequencies, as did the Iranian Kilo in the Air France AF447 shootdown in 2009, preventing a Mayday call.
As the unlawful seizure of my book and working papers in 2012 pushed back publication of Spyhunter by at least nine months airline pilots are unaware of my recommendation, following Air France, that the primary mode of communicating a Mayday message in the event of missile attack should be ACARS, or Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System. Being satellite-based and digital it is much more difficult to jam. The Bad Guys of course are aware of Spyhunter, which was after all seized and thoroughly analyzed, reportedly sending Dachau and Peking into shock, given its high level of accuracy and the devastating revelations it contains (if all y’all will excuse the ad the publishers, June Press, in Totnes, Devonshire, are now accepting advance orders – publication is scheduled for next month, price £25, ISBN 978-0-9927501-0-7).
The latest reporting, that the airplane’s ACARS was disabled shortly after MH370 crossed the Malaysian coast, has the ring of truth about it. ACARS can be disabled, although it is not as easy as jamming radios. Good pilots – and Captain Shah was a good pilot – follow their training in emergencies. That training, sadly, is inadequate to deal with missile attack.
All airline pilots on transoceanic crossings should be trained to treat ACARS disablement as an immediate, life-threatening emergency. In my as ever humble opinion (and all y’all know how humble I am!) they should:
(1) Secure the cabin for radical evasive maneuvers.
(2) If they are within 30 minutes of land, turn immediately towards it, going to TOGA power as they do so. If not, power should be reduced immediately to flight idle and an emergency descent initiated to no higher than FL100, with immediate cabin depressurization, squawking 7700.
(3) The APU, if online, should be shut down immediately (that was probably how KAL007 was acquired).
(4) The pilot not in command should immediately deactivate all onboard radar systems, including the radar altimeters, declare an emergency online, if they still have connectivity, and by radio, if they still have a carrier wave. If the radios are jammed the pilots should assume that their aircraft has been acquired by hostile fire control radar and is about to come under medium range surface to air missile attack. Passengers should be advised to brace for high-speed missile impact and don, but not inflate, their life jackets. Under NO CIRCUMSTANCES should the pilot in command attempt to outclimb or outrun the missile. He or she should assume a missile speed of Mach 3.5 plus in an ascending attack and up to Mach 5 for a long-range descending attack on semi-ballistic trajectory.
(5) All crew including cabin crew should be alerted to watch for incoming.
(6) The pilot in command should assume terminal radar guidance and delay evasive maneuvers for as long as possible, and not before visual confirmation of the incoming. Evasive maneuvers should be radical and the airplane should be taken to her airframe g-limits. The trick to evading a guided missile in an unarmed aircraft not equipped with countermeasures is to leave your maneuver until the last possible moment and make it as radical as you safely can, in order to break the missile’s lock on you, and
(7) If successful the pilot in command should assume a reload capability within 15 minutes, go to TOGA power and escape the target area at the fastest possible speed, disregarding all airframe speed limits and the 250 knot limit below FL100. He or she should assume that the airframe may have been overstressed, maintain 7700 emergency squawk and order the pilot not in command to broadcast a Mayday message via any viable communication system. As the airplane heads away from Dodge radio jamming should cease.
THE US NAVY HITS BACK
Happily the US Navy, a.k.a. the Good Guys, fought back. It looks like the USS Pinckney (DDG-91), God Bless her, whacked the Chinese Kilo, hence the diesel slick on the surface of the ocean, in an area where no surface vessel was reported. Aviation fuel is light and disperses. Diesel fuel in an area of suspected hostile SSK activity + no diesel-powered surface vessel in the area + powerful surface combatant with stand-off anti-submarine capability within range usually = subsmash.
Way to go the Pinckney! So far as I know (Gordon?) she could be the first US Navy surface vessel ever to have engaged the PLA Navy in combat. My respectful congratulations to Commander Frank Okata and her crew, especially the dedicated team in the Combat Information Center. Her job done, on behalf of humanity and Western Civilization, she has now docked at Changi. I am not hearing that there were cheering crowds, or even a brass band to play Anchors Aweigh, which is disgraceful. If you live in her home port, which I think is still San Diego, please make sure that you give her a big welcome when she gets home. She deserves a battle star. Someone should paint the silhouette of a Chinese submarine in an appropriate place. It could always be covered up for visiting weanies from Washington.
I gather there were some frantic messages from Peking after the realization hit home that there had been a subsmash in the South China Sea. I also gather that the White House were pretty frantic too, indeed there was probably an outbreak of mini-hysteria, although I didn’t ring the Situation Room to enquire (yes I have that number, but it’s only for emergencies, not for collecting scuttlebutt for this week’s column!!). They are now sending US warships on wild goose chases in the Indian Ocean. It’ll be the Great Southern Ocean next, indeed we are now hearing that the search has been extended to Kazakhstan. Any moment now I am expecting Thames Valley Police to join the search, making house to house enquiries in Berkshire to see if anybody has seen a lost Malaysian Boeing 777, possibly on Slough High Street. The search will be conducted anywhere but where the plane was shot down and the Kilo followed her to the bottom.
Pinckney should get a Presidential Unit Citation. If she were a Royal Navy vessel there would be an extra rum ration, or at least there would be if Royal Navy men-of-war still carried rum! Sadly we wimped out on the rum ration some years ago – something about the First Sea Lord not wanting sailors tanked up on rum running loose around guided weapons systems. Idiot!
At this time a former Secretary of the Navy of my acquaintance is not denying a word of this. I hope that airmen and women everywhere will spare a thought and a prayer for poor Captain Shah and his dedicated crew.
It seems there was someone of interest on the plane. There is a bitter internal power struggle going on in China right now. It seems like a powerful faction, backed by the DVD, was behind the attack. The other faction are Chinese nationalists, rather than ideological communists, closer to those nice people the Kuomintang than any communist party member has a right to be. It’s interesting that most of the outrage seems to be coming from nationalist outlets in China.
Malaysian Airlines grew out of Malaysia-Singapore Airlines, which in turn grew out of the original Malaya Airways, which started out in 1946 with a single Airspeed Consul. The Consul was very much a mini-airliner! Older readers, especially those who served in South East Asia, may well recall the MSA Boeing 707s, with their attractive yellow livery.
They are a good airline. I’ve only flown with them twice, each time in first class, from Melbourne to KL and KL to London. Service was excellent, and there were showers in the first class lounge at KL. Their aircraft are well-maintained and their crews well-trained. I see no conceivable basis for criticising Captain Shah, a dedicated and vastly experienced airman, his crew, nor the airline.
The Boeing 777 has an excellent safety record. There have only been two 777 crashes of any note, and one of those (BA Flight 38 at Heathrow) was down to Chicom/DVD sabotage of the FADEC software controlling the engines. The engines – Rolls-Royce Trents – have an equally good record. There is no reason at all to suspect a catastrophic failure of the airframe, or engine failure. The aircraft could have maintained her altitude of FL350 (35,000 ft) on one engine only.
Flying conditions that night were good. You can forget weather.
You can also forget terrorism. Had the airplane been destroyed in mid-air we would be seeing a wide distribution of wreckage. Hijacking is also out, not least as the hijack squawk code was not activated.
All countries should now follow the sensible Israeli example and fit countermeasures to civilian airliners carrying out ocean crossings. They need ECM as well as flares, to defeat terminal radar guidance and fire control radar. They also need missile lock-on warning systems. Special arrangements should be made as regards hull and passenger insurance. Sensibly this could be picked up by the state of registry, with recovery in due course from the attacking state, either by seizure of assets, or reparations after military defeat.
NSA and ONI were on the ball, so it looks like naval retaliation is well in hand. Losing their Kilo will make the Chicoms think twice. I suspect the NSA got some nice overheads – missile exhaust at night is very visible, and the Phoenix is a Big Mama of an air-to-air missile. ONI didn’t need much persuading of my analysis after AF447 that the Phoenix could be modified for Surface to Air launch, as the US Navy sensibly considered a 12-cell Phoenix as a successor to Sea Sparrow. The boys at Hughes put together a serious proposal on that one.
Well done the NSA! Another big intelligence success. (As Gordon knows my policy is one of ‘all the way with the NSA’!). If Obama whinges – and we know what a whinger he is – the boys at Meade could always drop a copy of that DNA report around to Congress, acting on an FOI Act request. That would mean Joe Biden as President. If Joe’s boys want a briefing they know where to reach me.
THE UKRAINE (NO MOVIE THIS WEEK)
This is coming along nicely. Bad Guys are getting c….p on big time. The Good Guys should win the vote in Crimea tomorrow (Sunday). The Russians and Byelorussians are reported to be moving motorized rifle and armored divisions up to the Ukrainian frontier and the Russian Air Force is bringing its master target plot for the Ukraine up to date. If the balloon goes up the Ukrainians will be rolled over big time.
I have already expressed my condolences to the Labour Party and I extend them to Tony’s family. We hardly agreed about anything after the 1980s but we always got on well, I liked and respected him and I was very sorry indeed to learn of his passing yesterday. He was a true patriot. A love of our country and our people informed his entire political career. No one could say that he was not a conviction politician and I admired him for that. We were hardly close, but we never had a cross word.
Apologies to listeners in the Denver area to 710 KNUS. I was due to be interviewed at 0700 Mountain Time yesterday, on the Peter Boyles Show. I do occasionally make the odd cock-up (this is my natural humility showing through again!) and of course I forgot that your clocks went forward last Sunday! Aaarrghh! I am so accustomed to Mountain Time being 7 hours behind that I just diaried it for 1400 Zulu without thinking. The boys at KNUS have been kind enough to say they will reschedule.
March 15th 2014