The changing focus on shootdown avoidance
When the general population raises eyes to the skies, they see a boundless blue expanse, unfettered by borders or fence lines.
In reality, the air above a nation is both highly valued and protected, with access granted at the behest of the owner. For some nations, granting that access can be a source of income or, conversely, it might be limited to guard against potential conflict.
Within this range of variables, instances of civilian airliners falling prey to hostile acts continue to occur.
AN ONGOING ISSUE
The downing of Malaysian Airlines MH17 over the Ukraine in 2014 drew global attention. The concept of a commercial airliner being brought down by a missile, with the loss of 298 innocent lives, filled the headlines and was rightly met by worldwide outrage.
Yet amid the accusations and investigations, MH17 was not an isolated event in the history of civil aviation – a fact reaffirmed as recently as January 2020 with the destruction of Ukraine 752 on departure from Tehran’s Imam Khomeini International Airport.
As far back as 1938, when Japanese fighters shot down the Douglas DC-2 airliner, the Kweilin, over China, civilian aircraft have fallen victim to fatal fire, either from attacking aircraft or land-based weaponry. The safe transit of airspace – particularly in volatile regions – has continued to be an issue for the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), its member states, and the airlines of the world.
The Convention on International Civil Aviation, commonly referred to as the Chicago Convention, was drafted in 1944 under the storm clouds of World War 2 in order to promote co-operation and to establish core principles for international transport by air. It was a future-looking proposal for peaceful air travel in a time of war.
Central to the convention is that, “States and states alone maintain sovereign authority over their airspace”. Therefore, the responsibility to issue risk advisories regarding any threat to civilian aircraft falls squarely upon the shoulders of those states with authority over the airspace. Those threats may well involve armed conflict, although the risk may also stem from events such as volcanic eruptions and subsequent ash clouds, pandemics, military exercises, or missile tests.
In certain cases, the risk may be mitigated by closing the airspace, although this decision remains with the state involved, with ICAO having no authority to act. For some nations, the income generated by airlines paying for the right to transit their airspace is substantial and may act as a deterrent to any action that may restrict air traffic in their skies.
The Dutch Safety Report stemming from the loss of MH17 made a series of safety recommendations to ICAO, its member states, and the International Air Transport Association (IATA). The recurring themes within the recommendations were for the relevant bodies to identify the nature of threats and assess the associated risks. Importantly, this information was to be openly shared for airlines and other operators to incorporate into their risk-assessment processes.
ICAO responded by establishing the Conflict Zone Information Repository (CZIR) in April 2015. The website was designed to share risk intelligence but, by the start of 2017, it was demonstrated that voluntary participation by member states had declined significantly and the CZIR was disbanded. Instead, stakeholders were choosing proprietary systems to share information.
Additionally, ICAO created Doc 10084, The Risk Assessment Manual for Civil Aircraft for Operations Over or Near Conflict Zones. In the wake of the loss of MH17 and Ukraine 752, the manual states in its introduction that its focus is, “…primarily on the risk posed by long-range surface-to-air missiles (SAMs), as these are currently considered to pose the most significant risk to civil aircraft operating over or near conflict zones”.
The manual also considers air-to-air missiles while the issue of short-range surface-to-air missiles such as man-portable air defence systems (MANPADS) is subject to other assessments by ICAO, including the export and control of such weaponry.
Regardless of the nature of the conflict, the type of threat or the region, the underlying theme remains the gathering of intelligence and the subsequent timely assessment and distribution of information to minimise risk.
ICAO relates that risks to civil aircraft can occur in the form of both “…deliberate acts and unintentional hazards” when operating over or near conflict zones. This calls for member states and aircraft operators to broaden their focus across a range of potential threats.
At low altitude, especially during the approach and landing phase, MANPADS potentially pose the greatest threat with an engagement envelope of between three and seven kilometres, and an altitude up to 15,000ft. As such, it took a far more substantial surface-to-air capability to reach Malaysian Airlines MH17 which was cruising at 33,000ft. Believed to be a medium-range 9K37 Buk (SA-11) missile, it was launched from a dedicated vehicle and was radar-guided as opposed to MANPADS which are generally heat-seeking.
History has also shown that such shootdowns can be deliberate acts of terror, examples of miscommunication, or a case of mistaken identity.
In 1988, the Ticonderoga class Aegis cruiser USS Vincennes shot down Iran Air Flight 655 with an SM-2 missile, believing the civilian Airbus A300 airliner to be an Islamic Republic of Iran Air Force (IRIAF) F-14A Tomcat. ICAO found that the crew of the USS Vincennes had made numerous attempts to contact the airliner by radio prior to firing their missiles, but a combination of factors meant the calls were possibly unheard or unheeded, with the airliner believing another aircraft was being hailed.
Regardless, the incident highlighted the risks involved in operating in areas of heightened tension. Against this backdrop, civil aircraft operators must assess the risk to continued operations using
every available means.
Civilian operators traditionally have teams that draw together operational expertise to assess risk in critical scenarios, be they ash clouds from volcanos or political tensions in a region. Accordingly, subject matter experts will combine resources with operational staff such as an airline’s chief pilot to assess the threat and draw up a strategy that may range from re-routing clear of the threat to grounding and total avoidance.
Aiding the assessment is a range of information, including the European Conflict Zone Information Bulletin (CZIB) compiled primarily by European governments to issue information, and the Conflict Zones Network of Focal Points (RCZ) which shares information about conflict zones from several sources. Similarly, the FAA website in the US lists Notices to Airmen (NOTAMs) that relate to heightened risks due to conflict. Airlines will also undertake their own proprietary assessments of conflict zones, including information-gathering from third-party security providers.
During the war in Afghanistan, even when the coalition forces held total air supremacy, defined corridors were designed for the safe passage of civilian aircraft through the airspace. Prior to entry, throughout the transit, and on departing the corridor, the aircraft would liaise with an Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) aircraft going by callsigns such as ‘Boss Man’ or ‘Warlord’.
The airliner would in turn need to comply with a range of procedures including being clearly illuminated for identification by coalition aircraft, and a thorough position reporting regime. If for any reason the airspace was not available, the airlines would re-route their aircraft, often via a substantially longer flightpath.
Even in seemingly routine operations, flashpoints can occur. The transit between Indian and Pakistan airspace has been traditionally fragile with the two sets of air traffic controllers seemingly reticent at times to share the details of arriving and departing aircraft between their adjoining airspace. Furthermore, due to increased conflict between the two nations earlier in 2020, Pakistan closed its airspace, only incrementally reopening it in the ensuing months.
Broadly speaking, civil aircraft operations have taken three approaches to dealing with potentially hostile airspace – active, avoidance, or managed. These are broadly defined as taking active countermeasures, opting for total avoidance or, most commonly, assessing risk based on the best intelligence that can be gathered.
Israel is best known for its active approach by equipping its airliners with countermeasures to a missile threat. Initially implemented in 2004, many commercial aircraft were fitted with four antennas under the ‘Flight Guard’ system to provide a 360-degree radar coverage to detect inbound missiles. If detected, the aircraft responded by dispersing flares to throw heat-seeking missiles off course.
The Israeli scheme was controversial, with certain member states highlighting the fire hazard posed by the falling flares. The system was subsequently superseded by the ‘C Music’ system which utilises thermal cameras to detect the inbound missile before pointing a laser at the weapon’s sensor to distract or blind it. Both systems are fully automated, and require no pilot input.
However, both Flight Guard and C-Music are only effective against heat-seeking missiles, not radar-guided missiles like those that brought down MH17.
A second strategy is to avoid the airspace above a conflict. This means of avoidance can impose a high fiscal cost on an airline, either through the grounding of services or extensive re-routing necessitating additional flight time and, potentially, diversion with associated landing charges, and so on. Additionally, there is still the potential for unforeseen risk in airspace that is generally considered to be safe – a level of disruption that may achieve the goals of organisations seeking to undermine economies and different ways of life to their own.
The third, risk-based approach is generally considered the standard, with military, intelligence, and professional organisations teaming with airlines to gather and assess the best possible intelligence. For such a strategy to continue to improve, the availability and proactive sharing of information also needs to move forward. Intelligence between civil and military entities needs to be transmitted in a timely fashion, and the more information that can be gathered the greater the accuracy in assessing the risk.
Neither the fitting of countermeasures to aircraft nor the grounding of flights are financially viable long-term means of conducting flight operations in, or near, zones of conflict. So for now, with intelligence gathering and risk-based decision-making the most viable alternative, the future lies in gathering all the best real-time intelligence available.
With civilian aircraft the victim of portable heat-seeking and larger radar-guided missiles, the dawn of a new era in technology has posed further questions. The rise of autonomous systems and artificial intelligence continues to impact a range of industries, and undoubtedly, weapons systems.
Aviation continues to strive for the ideal interface between the human element and automation, a balance that has been pursued in earnest for decades, and with failings at times. Autonomous weapons systems are free of fatigue and are often equipped with advanced systems
that can detect and assess a threat well before a human.
A range of naval vessels around the world are equipped with automated close-in defence systems such as the Phalanx gun. Rather than utilising IFF to identify friend or foe, the Phalanx applies various parameters to identify a target as a threat before firing. But this isn’t foolproof as demonstrated when a US Navy A-6 Intruder towing a target was accidently downed during an exercise when the Phalanx was called to action before the aircraft had left the engagement envelope.
Undoubtedly, autonomous weapons systems will continue to evolve with an ever-increasing appreciation of their environment and greater fidelity in assessing what to target and when to fire. Conversely, the degree of human input will continue to reduce, with more and more of the critical decision-making passed on to the weapon.
This gives rise to the established debate of the value of human input versus the reliability of the machine. However, in the context of civilian aircraft in a conflict zone, it offers yet another potential threat. To date, the shooting down of airliners has predominantly stemmed from human misidentification and error, or malicious intent. This raises the question of whether autonomous systems will offer greater safety in hostile airspace, or will greatly inhibit the human prerogative to exercise judgement and intervene.
It is that ability to utilise judgement over an automatic response of force that will undoubtedly see automation staged into implementation rather than a complete “handover” in the balance of power.
MAINTAINING THE BALANCE
While there are numerous political flashpoints across the globe, the world is not under the pall of an all-encompassing global conflict as it was when the Chicago Convention was conceived in 1944. However, it is the short, sharp nature of the geography and the air of tension across borders that has made the airspace overhead a site of potential conflict.
With weapons such as MANPADS relatively accessible to those who would do harm, and technology gradually edging the human out of the loop, the potential for hostile action and tragic accidents remains. Conversely, rather than pure technology, it will be the ability of nations and agencies to gather, interpret and disseminate intelligence of potential threats that will offer the greatest safety buffer. Armed with data, rather than physical countermeasures, civil aircraft can then be operated with the greatest level of risk mitigation.
And while the invisible boundaries will remain in the skies above, and their control will remain with the sovereign lands below, it will be global communication and co-operation that will offer the best defence.
This article appeared in the Nov-Dec 2020 issue of ADBR.