Why Didn’t the Malaysian Military Intercept MAH370?

The disappearance of Malaysia Air Flight 370 is one of the most disturbing episodes of recent years.

Initially, I concluded that the plane had exploded at high altitude, a la TWA 800 (though at a much higher altitude): the sudden disappearance from radar and the deactivation of the transponders supported this conclusion.  I thought terrorism would have been the most likely cause, but did not rule out some other catastrophic but accidental failure (e.g., ignition of fumes in a fuel tank).

I was skeptical about the initial reports that Malaysia had tracked the plane across its airspace on military radar because the utter inability of the Malaysian authorities to tell a coherent story made me doubt anything they said.  And recall the story was denied soon after it ran, and there appeared to be a conflict between civilian and military authorities, which cast doubt on everything.

But it is now confirmed that the plane was indeed tracked by Malaysian military radar traversing the country before turning into the Straits of Malacca. Now the official story, as yet uncontradicted, is that the plane flew on for 7 hours in an unknown direction (northwest? southwest?).  Meaning that it could be anywhere in about 10 percent of the earth’s surface, most of that trackless ocean.

This is so disturbing precisely because it is totally unprecedented as a hijacking or act of terrorism.  It is almost certainly deliberate, but the purpose is unfathomable.

Many aboard were Chinese, suggesting that if it was terrorism, it would be directed at the PRC.  But China’s only serious terrorist threat, the Uighers, have never mounted anything nearly so sophisticated and bold: mass knife attacks in railway stations is more their MO.  And what would be the purpose of creating a mystery with no known perpetrator, rather than making a dramatic statement?  (Unless, of course, the hijackers/terrorists communicated with the Chinese government, which has declined to say anything.)

Thus, this is a puzzle that will unlikely to be solved anytime soon.  If ever.

I just want to raise questions that to my knowledge have not been asked, let alone answered.  Why did the Malaysian military permit an unidentified aircraft traverse its airspace without challenging it?  Did the military challenge the UIA by radio?  Did it get a response? If not, or if the aircraft did not respond to the challenge or follow instructions, did Malaysia attempt to intercept?

The 777 apparently flew quite close to one of Malaysia’s largest cities, Penang.  Is the Malaysian military in the habit of allowing unidentified aircraft fly unhindered over its major cities? Is 9-11 that long ago?

I am a firm believer in the adage “never attribute to malice which can be explained by incompetence.”  And Lord knows, the Malaysians have displayed plenty of incompetence.  But more sinister possibilities cannot be excluded.

In any event, Malaysia must be confronted on its response-or more accurately, its lack of response-to a mystery plane waltzing across its airspace in the direction of a city of 1.5 million people.  If the Malaysian Air Force had acted properly, and intercepted the errant plane, perhaps lives would have been saved.  And even if they had not, and even had a hijacker bent on killing all the plane’s passengers for some unknown purpose crashed the plane or flown on in defiance of orders to land, at least we would not be where we are now: which is not having any idea of where the plane is, let alone how and why it got there.

The embarrassing nature of this question may explain Malaysia’s repeated obfuscation.  The confused signals given by various parts of the Malaysian government suggested that something was being covered up.  If the Malaysian military did not respond in any serious way to the invasion of its air space, the urge to cover up would be intense, especially in a shame-based culture.

We may never have definitive answers about what happened to MAH370 and why.  But Malaysia definitely owes the world some answers for its shockingly inept response to the intrusion of a jumbo jet into its airspace.

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About Craig Pirrong 238 Articles

Affiliation: University of Houston

Dr Pirrong is Professor of Finance, and Energy Markets Director for the Global Energy Management Institute at the Bauer College of Business of the University of Houston. He was previously Watson Family Professor of Commodity and Financial Risk Management at Oklahoma State University, and a faculty member at the University of Michigan, the University of Chicago, and Washington University.

Professor Pirrong's research focuses on the organization of financial exchanges, derivatives clearing, competition between exchanges, commodity markets, derivatives market manipulation, the relation between market fundamentals and commodity price dynamics, and the implications of this relation for the pricing of commodity derivatives. He has published 30 articles in professional publications, is the author of three books, and has consulted widely, primarily on commodity and market manipulation-related issues.

He holds a Ph.D. in business economics from the University of Chicago.

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