The Complex

U.S. Navy Stepping Up Involvement in Search for Missing Airliner

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

National Security

U.S. Ship Movement Spurs Jitters About Ukraine

The U.S. Navy announced Thursday that a guided-missile destroyer, the USS Truxtun, has left Souda Bay in Greece and will steam toward the Black Sea -- and the crisis in Ukraine.

Pentagon officials insisted that the move was unrelated to the rising tensions in the Crimean peninsula, which was seized by Russian forces last week. Still, with the United States and Russia locked in a tense standoff over the future of Crimea, the U.S. moving military assets toward Ukraine is fueling new jumpiness in the already unsettled region.

In one example, the Hurriyet Daily News newspaper in Turkey reported Wednesday that a U.S. military ship would be maneuvering through the Bosphorus Straits on its way to the Black Sea in the following two days. The newspaper did not name the ship, but linked the plan to the crisis in Crimea.

Navy officials said the Truxtun's deployment has been planned for months. The ship's crew will train alongside counterparts from the Bulgarian and Romanian militaries. The Truxton carries about 300 sailors and is typically armed with Tomahawk cruise missiles and a variety of other weapons.

"While in the Black Sea, the ship will conduct a port visit and routine, previously planned exercises with allies and partners in the region," Navy officials said. "Truxtun's operations in the Black Sea were scheduled well in advance of her departure from the United States."

Still, the move - even if previously scheduled - increases the United States' naval presence in the Black Sea at a sensitive time in which Russian Vladimir Putin remains at odds the Obama administration and the European Union over the future of Ukraine. Russia's invasion of Crimea occurred at a time in which the Navy had no working ships in the Black Sea. Navy officials told Foreign Policy on Feb. 28 that the only ship in the area was the USS Taylor, a frigate typically carrying about 200 sailors. That ship, though, is stuck in port in Samsun, Turkey, where it needs unspecified repairs, Navy officials said.

News of the Truxtun's move to the Black Sea came one day after Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told the Senate Armed Services Committee that the U.S. military would conduct more aviation training exercises with Poland and expand its role in NATO's air patrols over Baltic countries like Lithuania. The latter move was widely seen as an attempt to calm the nerves of U.S. allies in Eastern Europe following Russia's aggressive actions in Crimea.

In the Baltics, the United States will boost its number of F-15 fighters from four to 10, and add a KC-135 tanker plane, Pentagon officials said. The size of the U.S. military's expanded presence in Poland is not yet clear, but the Pentagon said this week that it was consulting with Polish officials about adding new troops to the detachment of U.S. forces servicing aircraft there.

U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Samantha Thorpe