The Malaysia Airlines flight that mysteriously disappeared 35,000 feet over the Gulf of Thailand on March 8 has prompted a massive maritime search involving dozens of aircraft and ships from 10 countries, including both the United States and China. But it has also underscored the lingering technological shortcomings and fragile communications networks bedeviling many of the nations in a region where territorial and political disputes continue to simmer, analysts said.
The U.S. Navy has dispatched two guided-missile destroyers, the USS Kidd and the USS Pinckney, to assist in a search now spanning waters from Malaysia to Vietnam. The ships each carry two MH-60R Seahawk helicopters that are designed for search-and-rescue missions and equipped with infrared cameras. The U.S. ships are working in tandem with vessels from China, Singapore and Malaysia, Pentagon officials said Monday, but it wasn't immediately clear how much they are in communication. The Pinckney investigated floating debris Sunday, but didn't find any pieces of the missing airplane.
The U.S. effort is bolstered by a single P-3C Orion, a maritime patrol aircraft equipped with high-tech antennas and other surveillance equipment. The plane was originally designed to find enemy submarines. This time around, Navy officials hope it will be able to find wreckage from the presumably downed plane. The U.S. also will keep the USNS John Ericsson, an oiler run by U.S. Military Sealift Command, in the region to help if needed. It will allow the Seahawks to refuel quickly.
Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 was a massive Boeing 777-200 aircraft bound for Beijing from Kuala Lumpur, and disappeared with some 227 passengers and 12 crew members aboard. The other countries involved in the search include Vietnam, Singapore, Indonesia, Thailand, Australia, the Philippines and New Zealand.
Thus far, the countries appear to be cooperating reasonably well on the search effort despite it occurring in close proximity with the South China Sea, an area rife with territorial disputes between numerous nations. But the United States is the only nation that has the technological capability of searching deep below the surface for the missing plane, said Christopher Harmer, a senior naval analyst with the Institute for the Study of War in Washington.
"Pretty quick, someone is going to have to take the lead on who is going to go out and get the FDRs, the flight data recorders," Harmer said. "We're familiar with the Gulf of Thailand, but somebody has to ask us."
That's where the issues get a little more complicated. The Vietnamese and Malaysians are likely to want taking a leading role in the mission, considering the airline flew out of Kuala Lumpur and disappeared while flying through Vietnamese airspace. Beijing is also likely to take keen interest in what happened because more than 150 of the passengers were from China, according to the airline.
But it's unclear so far which nation will take the overall lead in overseeing the investigation. The U.S. National Transportation Safety Board said in a statement Saturday that it was sending a team of investigators to an Asian nation to help, but declined to specify the nation.
"The country that leads the investigation will release all information about it," the safety board said in a cryptic statement.
The search for the missing plane is also complicated by the limited technology capabilities of Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Malaysia, countries which are modernizing their armed forces but still lag generations behind the United States, said Harmer, a former MH-60 helicopter pilot in the U.S. Navy. In most accounts of what occurred, officials have said that the transponder for the airline stopped transmitting its location over the Gulf of Thailand. Left unsaid, he added, is that if aviation officials in those countries had been monitoring the plane more closely they might have still had a sense of where it went down. Aircraft in the region aren't tracked nearly as closely as they are in the United States and Europe, and don't always receive a response when reaching out to air traffic control authorities.
"I can't tell you how many times I called Malaysian air traffic control," he said, "And just wouldn't hear back."
It's also unclear whether previously simmering political tensions between nations in the Pacific will come into play, said Michael Auslin, an expert on Asia issues at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank in Washington. Cooperation has been reasonably good so far, he said, but it could become more complicated as time progresses.
"Certainly the immediacy of a crisis like this helps with cooperation now," he said. "But I think at some point you could see tensions and concerns based on where the wreckage is found.... It makes things more difficult when you don't have working relationships with trust."
U.S. Navy photo