The Complex

The Fear of Sharing and the Search for Flight 370

There are myriad questions surrounding the ongoing search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, but one thing has become crystal clear to U.S. military officials: Asia Pacific countries need to learn how to play together better.

The search for the jetliner, now in its 22nd day, would have gone faster and maybe have been more effective had Malaysia, China, India and other countries involved in the search learned better how to share their intelligence and coordinate the information they had, say current and former Pentagon officials.

"This is yet another example of the incredible need to share among countries in the Asia Pacific," Vikram Singh, who last month left the Pentagon as a deputy assistant secretary of Defense for South and Southeast Asia, said in an interview.

While the search for the jetliner shows a high degree of cooperation between countries in the region, there are a number of examples where that coordination fell short. Many of the problems stem from Malaysia's own handling of the disaster. The government in Kuala Lumpur was slow to react or explain to the public or other countries what it was doing in the hours and days immediately following the plane's disappearance. But a majority of the issues are the result of countries not working well together. Governments were either too slow to share information, or were reluctant to do so, stifling the search and delaying it by days, American defense officials said.

In Europe, the crisis brought on by the Russian annexation of Crimea has drawn European allies together. As a result, U.S. officials say there is a reasonably high level of coordination among nations in terms of intelligence sharing. But Asia is still a relative backwater when it comes to coordinating collectively. There is no "habit of information-sharing," said Singh, now a vice president for national security and international policy at the Center for American Progress in Washington.

Indeed, the search for Flight 370 underscores the need for more information sharing, said Adm. Samuel Locklear, commander of U.S. Pacific Command, in a March 28 interview with Foreign Policy. Many of the countries just don't coordinate closely on aviation issues, even though they have growing economies and populations that reflect their rise in regional prominence, he said.

"The structures that are in their neighborhood have to keep pace with that," Locklear said. There are structures in place when it comes to coordinating between the U.S. and Canada, and such structures are maturing with Mexico, he said.  The same goes for the Asia Pacific region, he said.  "Their neighbors [in southeast Asia] that are right there with them... they've got to look at the lessons from this event and say, 'What can we learn from that and what can we do better?'"

As pressure grows to determine the fate of the jetliner, each country's government has grown more defensive about their intelligence and surveillance capabilities and what information they are willing to provide publicly and with other countries.

China blamed Malaysia early on for hoarding information. China, on the other hand, was not quick to explain what it knew about the jet's circuitous path, which investigators have still been unable to explain and hampered efforts to locate the ill-fated plane. And India did not want to allow China to send ships to search for the jet in the Bay of Bengal out of distrust of Beijing's intentions in the region, according to media reports.

Some countries aren't sharing satellite imagery, radar information or other intelligence or data because in some cases they lack certain capabilities and thus sharing information that they do have will highlight the information they don't have.

"There is a paradox in all of these domain awareness capabilities, like radar," Singh said. "In the vast majority of cases, sharing information from these systems will improve a nation's security, but the worry about sharing something they don't want to expose - like gaps in radar coverage -leads to secretiveness that actually weakens security."

Information sharing will be atop the agenda this week when Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel hosts a first-ever meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN, in the U.S. Ten defense ministers of ASEAN, which includes Vietnam, Thailand, Singapore, the Philippines, Myanmar, Malaysia, Indonesia and Cambodia, will gather in Hawaii and discuss ways to work better together. The disappearance of Flight 370 will force the ministers to examine the lessons they've learned over the last few weeks, defense officials said.

During the conference, defense ministers will tour National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Inouye Regional Center, named after the late Sen. Daniel Inouye. The facility, on the island of O'ahu, helps combine climate, ocean and atmospheric data in part to help prepare governments for natural disasters across the Pacific Ocean. But the stop is expected to showcase for defense ministers the value of sharing information. Hagel will have to convince his colleagues that it is in their best interest to work together - whether it's a lost jetliner, a typhoon or a territorial dispute.

"I think he's keen to get into a broader, deeper discussion about how we can improve those capabilities as well and interoperability between partners and friends," Pentagon Press Secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby told reporters last week, referring to the ASEAN conference. "Everybody's coming together to try to do the best they can and it's in times like that when disaster strikes, that you want to be able to put aside whatever differences you might have and work together and -- but that doesn't mean you shouldn't look for ways to try to work together better and more efficiently."

The search for the jet isn't the only example of where a lack of coordination portends a bigger problem. Territorial disputes between a number of countries, including China and Japan, have plagued the region and created instability and animated much of the distrust in the region. Such is the case with the dispute between China and Japan over each country's claim to a set of islands in the East China Sea - referred to by mainland China as the Diaoyu Islands and by Japan as the Senkaku Island chain.

And earlier this month, two Philippine transport ships were waylaid by the Chinese government, which claimed they were in its territorial waters. Initially, there was confusion in Manila about just what ships Beijing was raising concerns about. That was a sign to the U.S. government that there is little coordination, and no "common picture" of what's going on in the region.

Defense officials say the level of coordination among many Asian nations is far better than it used to be - and the search for Malaysian jet is in fact also an illustration of that, they say. Even though coordination is lacking, the fact that there was any level of communication at all between the countries searching for the flight is in stark contrast to what might have taken place a decade ago, officials said.

And when piracy threatened economic and political stability in the region in the Strait of Malacca several years ago, a number of countries came together to fight it. The collective fight against piracy offered a positive example of what countries could do in the region if they worked together. But since then, few governments haven't taken the next step, Singh said. There's hope Flight 370 will force the issue now.

"That was a case where there was a challenge and they met it, but they really haven't built on it any further," Singh said.

Dan Lamothe contributed to this report.


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National Security

Afghan Drone War in Steep Decline

A March 6 airstrike in Afghanistan killed at least five Afghan soldiers and wounded eight more - an egregious accident that prompted the U.S.-led military coalition to launch an ongoing investigation into what occurred. Afghan officials allege the attack was carried out by a drone, long the Obama administration's weapon of choice, while the U.S. says it involved a manned aircraft. Either way, the strike highlights an important -- and surprising -- shift:  Both the amount of time drones spend over Afghanistan and the number of total coalition airstrikes are in steep decline, and that trend is likely to accelerate as the U.S. withdraws most of its remaining troops in the months ahead.

Statistics released to Foreign Policy show that the amount of time spent  by U.S. drones over Afghanistan was down 22 percent between 2012 and 2013. The number of drone flight hours over Afghanistan dropped even more drastically over the last six months -- 30 percent over the previous half-year. Coalition officials declined to disclose the specific number of hours flown, but said the primary mission for U.S. drones - remotely piloted aircraft in military jargon -- remains intelligence gathering, surveillance and reconnaissance from the sky. The military also refused to say whether the numbers of drone strikes have been increasing or going down.

Drone usage declining in Afghanistan may catch some by surprise. The military has used them widely in other countries where the United States has a small presence of troops, including Yemen, Pakistan, and Somalia. It would seem logical, then, that with fewer U.S. troops now in Afghanistan, drones would be called on more. But it turns out the opposite is true: as the coalition military drawdown in Afghanistan continues, the amount of high-tech equipment used there also is declining. That goes not only for drones, but for ground-based surveillance equipment. One example commonly used by U.S. forces is the Ground Based Operational Surveillance System, typically known in military-speak as a "G-BOSS." It includes an 80-foot tower that has infrared cameras, radar equipment and other sensors on it, and is capable of watching insurgents from long distances.

Officials at the White House, Pentagon and the military coalition with headquarters in Kabul all declined to comment on the change. But retired Adm. James Stavridis, who served as the supreme allied commander of NATO until retiring last year, said that while technology has been helpful to U.S. forces, the gear wouldn't be as useful to the Afghans after coalition forces leave "because the enemy operates so often in a primitive context."

The Afghan forces' "knowledge of culture, language, geography, personality and so on means that they see the world in technicolor, while we are at best looking at a fuzzy black-and-white picture in so many scenarios," Stavridis said. "For counter-insurgency, the human and physical terrain knowledge is vital, the high-tech capability is helpful. While additive, high-tech is not crucial in my view."

The use of drones has continued to be controversial in Afghanistan, however, especially when it leads to civilians getting caught in the crossfire. In one recent example, a Sept. 7 airstrike in Kunar province, along Afghanistan's eastern border, killed 14 civilians, surviving family members later told the Los Angeles Times. The U.S. military coalition contended that 11 were killed, many of them insurgents, but villages later said the dead included women and children.

"There were pieces of my family all over the road," one 28-year-old farmer, Miya Jan, told the Times. "I picked up those pieces from the road and from the truck and wrapped them in a sheet to bury them."

The Air Force stopped releasing statistics about the number of drone airstrikes it conducted last year, causing outcry from transparency advocates. U.S. Central Command told Air Force Times last year that the decision was made because doing so placed a disproportionate emphasis on the strikes, rather than other drone missions. The change occurred as both Afghan President Hamid Karzai and some members of Congress increasingly called for scrutiny on them.

The military coalition in Kabul says that drones -- remotely piloted aircraft, or RPAs, in military jargon -- are used judiciously, however.

"Only 3 percent of RPA sorties are involved in airstrikes," said Lt. Col. Will Griffin, a coalition spokesman in Kabul. "Our efforts to reduce civilian casualties are comprehensive and involve our civilian casualty mitigation board, as we as tightly restricted, meticulously planned, carefully supervised and coordinated use of aerial weapons applied by qualified personnel. This applies to both manned and remotely piloted aircraft."

The latest numbers released show that the overall air war in Afghanistan continues to decline. The Air Force dropped weapons 400 times between November and February, a 60 percent decrease when compared to the same period a year ago. The heaviest single month of the air war came in October 2010, as the United States flooded thousands of additional troops into Afghanistan and assaulted numerous areas of the country that had little coalition presence. The Air Force dropped 1,043 weapons that month alone - 82 percent more than it did this past October.

Defense Department photo