Wouldn’t MH370 Have Been Seen By Radar If It Went North?

The flight line at Hetian, China’s largest airbase in the extreme west of the country, shows only intermittant use, with jets on the field in September, 2013 (left) but none a month later (right).

[Note: As I wrote earlier this week, I’ve released an ebook “The Taking of MH370” summing up my research into the disappearance of MH370. For those who haven’t already read it I’m planning over the next few days to excerpt some of the chapters that I think will be the most useful in driving the conversation forward. Here is the chapter in which I explore the state of radar surveillance along the northern route.]

It seems like a common-sense assumption that most countries routinely monitor their whole airspace. That, however, turns out not to be the case. Military radar is expensive to build and requires a lot of electricity and manpower to operate. Unless there is a valuable target to defend, and missiles and planes capable of defending it with, running a radar station 24/7 is a waste of resources. So in most parts of the world coverage is like Swiss Cheese in reverse—the gaps far outnumber the areas under surveillance.

“During the Cold War, we got used to the concept that the radar is constantly on and jets are scrambled if anything unexpected is seen” Tim Huxley, executive director of the International Institute of Strategic Studies in Asia, told the Wall Street Journal in 2014. “We sort of expect that to be the normal response, but that doesn’t necessarily translate into comprehensive coverage in other parts of the world.”

Still, there are areas of the world that probably are under watch for most of the time. It would be interesting to know if MH370’s presumed northern route passed through any of them.

Let’s start with the beginning of the route. A half hour after leaving the Malacca Strait, according to the DSTG’s calculations, the plane would have passed over the Andaman Islands. The islands belong to India, which maintains a radar station there. But the radar is only turned on when a crisis is looming, which wasn’t the case on March 8. “We operate on an ‘as required’ basis,” the chief of staff of India’s Andamans and Nicobar Command told Reuters.

Next, the plane would have crossed the coast of mainland India west of Calcutta and passed almost directly over the Indian Air Force base at Kalaikunda. The squadron of Russian-built Sukhoi Su-30 fighters based there are guided by the nearby radar installation at Salua. But if the Andaman radar was inactive, Salua likely was as well, since both facilities are geared toward defence of the same area. “Kalaikunda… has been a bridge with the Andamans,” an official told the Times of India in 2011. “The role of the base will grow and aircraft based here will play a vital role in patrolling the skies over the Andamans and the Bay of Bengal.”

It only stands to reason that India would prioritize its radar coverage in more pressing areas, like its border with Pakistan, 1,000 miles to the northwest. Relations between the countries have been tense since they achieved independence from Britain in 1947 with numerous territorial claims unresolved. India frequently intercepts planes that cross into its airspace from Pakistan without adhering to correct air-traffic procedure. It is less vigilant about the Bay of Bengal. “India has an exceptionally large area to cover, a massive airspace and maritime space,” Huxley told the Wall Street Journal. “Looking toward the south, they wouldn’t have so much reason to expect adversary aircraft.”

Continuing northward, MH370 would have crossed into Nepalese airspace. Nepal is a small, poor country, with no urgent concerns that anyone will attack it from the air, and hence no air force or air defense radar.

Passing west of Kathmandu, the plane would have arced over the spine of the Himalayas and entered Chinese airspace. For the next two hours it would have hewn to the westernmost edges of Tibet and Xinjiang, China’s two westernmost provinces.

The region is what you might call an aeronautical desert. If you look at a flight-tracking web site, you’ll see steady streams of traffic flowing to the north, south, east, and west but staying clear of a well-defined area. The reason most flights avoid this area is that if a plane should suffer a depressurization emergency and need to descend to a lower altitude, it won’t be able to. The Himalayas and much of the Tibetan plateau are so high that passengers and crew acclimatized to sea level won’t be able to function. The one route across far western China, which Lufthansa uses to connect Frankfurt and Hong Kong, can only be flown by specially trained crews in specially equipped aircraft.

Because there is so little air traffic in the area, there is no radar coverage in this part of China. Planes flying the route are required to stay in touch with air traffic control via satellite datalink. Then, once the flight clears the plateau and passes over more populated, lower-lying areas in the eastern part of the country, conditions become normal again: “As soon was we are out of this area we are on radar,” says Lufthansa pilot Peter Klant, who has flown the route extensively.

The same conditions that discourage civilian aviation also make the region inhospitable for air defense. Its huge size, remoteness, high altitude, and fierce weather make it difficult to defend; the fact that it is largely empty further reduces the impetus to watch closely over it. The region remains a backwater of China’s strategic air defence capabilities.

“The real threats that China faces are east, along the coast,” says Timothy R. Heath, a senior defense research analyst at the RAND corporation who studies Chinese air defense assets. “They have air defenses down south, facing Taiwan and Vietnam, and up near the Korean peninsula, which makes sense because all of those are countries with aircraft and missiles that can harm China. The Indian border is primarily a ground infantry situation, due to the terrain— it’s hard for aircraft to locate and target anyting.”

Three Chinese airbases lay on or near MH370’s route.
The first, Ngari Gunsa, is a remote 15,000-foot airstrip laid out along a broad, barren valley in the Gandise range. Its altitude of 14,000 feet makes it the fourth-highest altitude airport in the world. Intended for both military and civilian use, its construction began in 2007 and was completed in 2010. But fighter deployment since then has been infrequent. According to a 2017 article in Indian Defence Review, since 2010 the Chinese air force has been deploying fighter jets only “twice every year for two-week deployment periods.”

About 125 miles after Ngari Gunsa the plane would have crossed from Tibet into Xinjiang. Its path would take it about 100 miles west of Hotan, also known as Hetian, an ancient silk road town on the southwestern edge of the Taklamakan Desert. Hetian appears to have been used as a temporary staging area for fighter planes. There are no military aircraft visible in the Google Earth satellite image of the site take in February, 2013; in September of that year 26 jets and two helicopters can be seen. The following month the ramp is again bare. Then in October, 2014, 16 military jets are visible.

This kind of temporary staging is “what I’d expect,” says Heath. “Some of these environments are really hard on the equipment. They’ll move the air defence out there for a while, do some exercises, and then they’ll pull it back.”
Just before it left Chinese airspace, MH370 would have passed almost directly over the oasis city of Kashgar, also known as Kashi. Google Earth imagery shows that in March of 2014 construction had begun on a new ramp area at the eastern end of the city’s commercial airport. This would ultimately become the home of a fighter squadron. But the first planes wouldn’t arrive for another three years.

Interestingly, in the wake of MH370’s disappearance, China not only stepped up its overall air defense capabilities in the region, in particular flying “confrontation drills” and “paying much attention to the training of air battle at night,” according to a 2017 story in Delhi Defence Review. In 2015, the Chinese air force deployed its most advanced anti-aircraft missile system, the HQ-9, to Hotan. “It’s kind of odd that they would even have HQ-9s out in Xinjiang,” Heath says. “What’s the threat?”

Six hours after diverting from its planned route, MH370 would have been nearing the border of the former Soviet Union. If its hijacking had been commanded by the Kremlin, then the perpetrators would now be home safe. Directly ahead would be the first of the former Soviet states, Kyrgyzstan. Twenty minutes later, the Russian airbase at Kant would lie abeam the starboard wing. Ahead would stretch the expanse of Kazakhstan’s Betpak-Dala desert. And off to the left, a half-hour’s flying distance away, would lie the Baikonur Cosmodrome.

ADDENDUM: In case you’re curious, here’s where the plane went, according to the DSTG’s calculations based on the BTO values alone:

The probability distribution is projected vertically in white over the endpoint in either case. It’s a little hard to tell from this view where exactly the northern terminus is, so I eyeballed the eastern and western edges of the northern route cluster and projected them onto Google Earth:

So, the plane most likely would have traveled somewhere between the two orange lines, basically flying parallel to the spine of the Himalayas, and ended up on the blue/purple line somewhere west of Jambyl. The bright green circle is Baikonur.

14 thoughts on “Wouldn’t MH370 Have Been Seen By Radar If It Went North?”

  1. @Jeff
    Is it possible to overlay the mirror of the heat map for the northern route? This would at least give us a starting point.
    A hijacking scenario leaves at least 4 possibilities
    1. The passengers were valuable as hostages or technical knowledge. Or killing them may have given an advantage to the competitor or heir to the semiconductor company (Freeman?).
    2. The cargo had a hidden value.
    3. The plane itself, which among other things, might be used as a weapon.
    4. A warning to someone.
    Since there has been no sign of the passengers, cargo or plane being used it appears that the motive might have been a warning. A message was being sent that cooperate with us or you will be next. MH17 was next. The plane could have landed or crashed on the 7th arc.
    If the plane ran out of fuel before arriving at the airport, the 3 hijackers could have proceeded to a lower altitude and parachuted.
    A lot of speculation and it seems like square one from 4 years ago. Russia is great at disinformation, leaving confusion and chaos in its wake.

  2. @Trip, To address your initial question, I added some graphics to the post so you can see where the DSTG’s Bayesian analysis puts the plane on the 7th arc if it went north.

  3. Hi Jeff, and congratulations on getting you’re book out = the cover and title are great.

    This quote you used piqued my interest… “India has an exceptionally large area to cover, a massive airspace and maritime space,” Huxley told the Wall Street Journal. “Looking toward the south, they wouldn’t have so much reason to expect adversary aircraft.”

    Unfortunately, the quote the article is behind a paywall, and I’d be grateful if you could tell me if the guy making it is Tim Huxley, the Chairman of Mandarin Shipping? If so, there are some interesting links between him and the rather spooky Ocean Infinity.

  4. Lots of refreshening new talk around parachuting scenarios – I have no problem with “out-of-left-field” ideas that JW’s new book is spawning but, tell me, how and where are these parachutes found on the aircraft?

    JW – I thoroughly enjoyed reading the book cover-to-cover in a single sitting. I’d have liked more details as to why the initial surface searches got yanked (on Malay orders) from ocean to ocean and the underwater sonic locator “circus” – my understanding of which is that the shadowing Chinese picked up the sounds first?

    Lastly, your blanket dismissal of eyewitness and sonic evidence:
    “Eyewitness testimony is notoriously unreliable, and there was no way the Inmarsat data was compatible with the plane’s appearance over Maldives.” is typical of folks dismissing evidence that does not align with their pet theory. 16 independent Maldives people reporting the same unusual aircraft at the same time might not be unreliable.
    Similarly with the sonics of the Curtin “boom”.
    Not enough fuel for these events to have taken place? Think outside the box ….. I’d trust eye witness over Inmarsat in this instance.

    All the same, great book and good read – well done for keeping this subject alive the way you have.

  5. @Boris, The article ID’s him as “Tim Huxley, executive director of the International Institute of Strategic Studies in Asia,” so I think they’re different people. I can send you the full text if you want. But… tell me more about Mandarin Shipping’s links to Ocean Infinity!

  6. @Cargo Handler, Thank you! As to the relative weighting of evidence, in order for the Maldive’s eyewitness testimony to be both accurate and relevant to MH370 (i.e. maybe there was a plane but it wasn’t MH370) we have to throw out pretty much everything else we know about the case. So it becomes hard to carry out a discussion on the basis of a consensual reality.

  7. @Cargo Handler: “… how and where are these parachutes found on the aircraft? ”

    The bad guys may have had assistance from ground personnel (cargo handlers?), to load equipment and perhaps people in the airplane (in the EE bay?) while it was parked away from the gate.

  8. Hello Jeff,
    What about the so called debris that were found in the pacific ocean ? Would the North route means that these debris have been planted ? By whom, Russia ?

  9. @Jem, I’m not sure what debris you’re referring to; as far as I know no debris from MH370 has yet been collected in the Pacific, though given the amount of time that has elapsed by now it could wash up on any coastline in the world.

  10. Jeff, congratulations on your book.

    I am on board with your core theory – this was not a mad captain scenario, and the satellite data should not be trusted.

    I am skeptical of the Russians but also open to the idea. I am going to educate myself more about the international politics between US-Russia at the time and maybe weigh back in. It’s a compelling “conspiracy theory” (I mean that in a literal, non negative way.)

    Heres my 2 off the wall theories-

    The events of 2014 were some sort of sick A/B test. In marketing, you live test two different headlines or whatever in a campaign and then gather info about what worked better. In this case, someone wanted to know how the media, stock market, governments reacted when a commercial airliner completely vanished vs. What happens when one is obviously shot down. Then, when the chips are down (or your master plan is nearing culmination) you make another plane disappear or shoot one down. Who could do such a thing? Russians? Some secretive billionaire? SPECTRE? A self aware AI, out of control? No, I don’t know so I will just say, Russia or something like it fits the bill. (Or, someone using Russian muscle and assets, or manipulating them).

    Also, in fairness to popular opinion, here’s a mad captain theory- Shah wanted to be a bigger hero than Scully. He got a cracked idea that he could fake a massive comm/navigation failure, glide the plane into the ocean, and keep everyone alive until rescue. Instant world hero! Even if he was eventually exposed, people would be in awe he kept folks alive until rescue. Of course he failed, or maybe they are all trapped on an island somewhere!

    Anyway, random thoughts from someone who doesnt understand most of this stuff but has followed this story obsessively since day one.

    Thanks again for everything you have done to keep this story alive!

  11. @Paul Rise, That first idea is an interesting one! It is indeed pretty clear that the GRU shot down MH17, and my interpretation of the evidence is that they took its sister airplane, MH370, as well, four and a half months earlier. Some kind of A/B testing is an intriguing idea.

  12. First of all, congratulations on the book Jeff!! Happy to see you succeeded and published it.

    Regarding the parachuting idea, this has been proposed before but is unlikely. Effectively you have to fly really slow to even have a chance as a very well trained parachuter to possibly survive. However most scenarios where a highly skilled parachuter would be present he would just land the plane in the first place. Worrying about the possibility of parachuting seems unreasonable when there’s no wreck/crash where someone could have jumped out of ; most likely the plane landed somewhere.

    Regarding Jeff’s radar difficulties addressed in this post, I note that there is what seems to me some selective reasoning regarding radar. On the one hand me there is ample, though I maintain never 100% specific radar evidence seeming to prove a flight path west from the point of last contact in the bay of Thailand. Then, JW asks us to believe that the plane continued for many hours flying over several frontiers, sometimes near airports, military installations, and militarised frontiers without any radar sightings – even unclear ones such as the ones earlier during the leg west over Malaysia. I particularly note the lufthansa pilot quoted by JW who is saying “as soon as we are out of this area [the Tibetan plateau] we are under radar “. Wo what does that mean? Surely mh370 would have equally then be seen?

    All in all I’m really sorry to say that JW’S proposed northern arc route still doesn’t convince me. To me it seems that it’s a “convenient” theory in the context of MH17 and the general perception of Russia in the so called west. However the possible motives given seem highly vague and the “plot” requires a chain of fairly big ifs. The biggest to me is the one addressed in this post – sure, if all stars are aligned maybe all radars along the way are switched off etc etc, but at the least JW’S theory requires lots of good luck…

  13. @Havelock, You raise excellent points. Though I didn’t make the point here, I’ve earlier written that around the time this was happening, Russia was making a lot of aggressive moves to test Western radar systems, flying their military planes right up to the edge of (mostly European) countries and forcing their jets to scramble. Point being, they were in the business of figuring out what radar defenses were on, where. If one were to plan a caper like this, one would certainly have mapped out the primary radar coverage zones.

    I can’t prove that there was no radar surveillance along the route, my objective is more to point out that we can’t rely on the possibility of radar coverage to rule out a flight north, either. If the flight route had taken the plane right over Karachi, that would have been seriously problematic. As it is, the route takes it right along the spine of the Himalayas in a way that the massif would act as a shield from Indian or Pakistani radar, even if they had anything on the ground capable of seeing that far (as you can see in the Google Earth screenshot I added, I spent some time looking at Leh, which sits with its back right up against the wall of the mountains.)

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