[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.