The Strategist

MH370 and China's Anti-Access Area Denial Strategy

14 Apr, 2014    ·   4385

Vice Admiral (Retd) Vijay Shankar looks at how the incident dampens the credibility of China’s A2AD strategy

Vijay Shankar
Vijay Shankar
Vice Admiral (Retd.)

fThe mystery of the missing Malaysian Airlines MH 370 continues to confound. Was it a sudden catastrophic end to an ill-fated flight or was it a failure of surveillance that led to a controlled and purposeful disappearance of a marked commercial carrier?

The last reported position of the aircraft was on 08 March 2014 at 0119 hours (local time Malaysia) in the Gulf of Thailand at its first navigational way point IGARI, about 500 km north east of Kuala Lumpur at an altitude of 35,000 feet cruising at 872 km/h, well on its predetermined route to Beijing. This account was immediately followed by loss of all communications and a possible disabling of the secondary radar (transponder). MH 370 was now less than 200 km from the Vietnamese coast with orders to call up Ho Chi Min city Air Traffic Control (ATC). Normal procedures demand a positive overlap when control passes from one ATC to another; this would appear not to have occurred which in itself ought to have rung some alarm bells particularly in a dense airspace which accounts for nearly 16 per cent of global traffic (see Map 1, authors research suggests that there were at least 25 aircraft on international transit within 500 kms of MH 370 at that instant).

Map 1: Intended Flight Path of MH370 (CZ748), its last known position, and traffic density                                                     

Leaving aside the initial bungling by Malaysian aviation authorities; conspiracy theories abound, from a terrorist attack to a suicidal cockpit to a US-sponsored clandestine seizure and strike to prevent high security cargo from falling into Chinese hands. However, more significant is the response of China’s most recent Flight Information Region (FIR) Centre at Sanya and its integration into that nation’s Air Defence network. The Sanya FIR (in Hainan) is responsible for managing traffic and maintaining continuous surveillance over the South China Sea. Its formal area of responsibility is a sea space of 280,000 square km which approximates a square of 530 km sides or a circle of diameter 600 km extending into the South China Sea. While China’s claim to sovereignty over the entire South China Sea does not include the Gulf of Thailand; the last reported position of MH 370 was within 500 km of its claimed territorial sea and about 1200 km from Hainan. Also, had the flight stuck to its planned route, it would have over flown Vietnam and entered Chinese ‘airspace’ in the Sanya FIR by 0215 hrs. It did not and therefore the question arises, why was Sanya Air Control Centre at such a run-down state of alert and the Chinese Air Defence organisation wanting in alacrity? Given the current imbroglio in the South China Sea, the state of air surveillance would have demanded early tracking and far more credible situational awareness. Another consideration is the fact that Hainan is home to the Chinese South Sea Naval Fleet at Beihai and houses its strategic ballistic missile submarine force at Yulin; which must play some part in assuring domain wakefulness.                                                                                      

Map 2: Track of MH 370 from take-off to 1h 34m into flight 

At 0215 hrs came a positive pick-up of MH 370 by Malaysian military radar fixing the aircraft 320 km north west of Penang at 12000 feet altitude on a westerly heading; having deviated 500 kms west of its intended track (see Map 2). This information had to have been passed to Sanya FIR since the aircraft was bound for Beijing. Two possibilities emerge: either the entire air space management organisation and air defence network in China were in deep slumber or the appreciation of China’s Air Defence Surveillance is flawed. They just do not seem to have the essential surveillance capability - after all an overdue aircraft whether overdue at destination or any of its waypoints is no trifling matter from both the safety and security perspectives.

To the astute military analyst the 370 incident places the edifice of China’s Anti-Access Area Denial (A2AD) strategy, upon which is predicated the emergence of the People’s Liberation Army as a major player in the Asia Pacific region, as some what less than persuasive. The strategy is based on the marriage of the Dong-Feng 21D anti-surface ballistic missile as the ‘aircraft carrier killer’ with matching surveillance capability that could detect and target hostile aircraft carriers at ranges in excess of 2000 km. Critically, the kill chain begins with detection of the Carrier’s flight operations. The entire episode must also have come as a dampener to the heady mixture of Chinese nationalism, its new found wealth and its urge to upset the status-quo that animates what may be called the ‘China Arrival’.

If China touts the A2AD strategy as its existential future, it is clear that the credibility of such a scheme has taken a hammering. China’s planners may argue that they had not used the full weight of their military surveillance capability for security reasons; but this contention does not hold much water for two reasons. Firstly, by 09 March Chinese remote-sensing satellites had been deployed with considerable operational alacrity (if not precision) to join the search effort. Secondly, the A2AD strategy is a deterrent strategy and the conditions were ideal to demonstrate its surveillance competence. Its satellite reported possible debris of the aircraft within 90 kms south of Vietnam’s Tho Chu Island, about 150 kms north of the last known position reported at 0130 hrs on 08 March. The search centre moved to this new position; however the deployed scouts drew a blank. The fresh datum for the search diluted international exertions which only regrouped after an analysis of satellite communications’ doppler shift  to concentrate efforts nine days later in the south Indian Ocean about 6000 km southwest of the of the first report.

The search for the remains of the hapless MH370 continues. Meanwhile, China’s quest for an existential strategy as a prelude to confronting the status-quo is convincing nobody.