Opinion

The Great Debate

After MH17: The technical fix that could protect civilian airliners from missile attacks

Site of a Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 plane crash is seen at the settlement of Grabovo in the Donetsk region

The awful crash of Malaysian Flight 17 in the eastern Ukraine combat zone seems likely to have been caused by a long-range surface-to-air missile. At this writing, who launched the missile remains undetermined. Regardless of who’s guilty — why is a modern software-driven weapon capable of striking a civilian jet in the first place?

All commercial airliners send out transponder signals that identify them as civilian. In most cases, what’s employed is a protocol called Mode C, which is not used by military aircraft.

transponder

Modern radar-guided long-range anti-aircraft missiles — like the one apparently used to shoot down Malaysian Flight 17, like the one the U.S. cruiser Vincennes used in 1988 accidentally to shoot down Iran Air Flight 655, killing 290 civilians — don’t pay any attention to what mode a target’s transponder is in. They lock onto a radar image chosen by the gunner, then once launched relentlessly seek the target.

That’s the old way of designing long-range anti-aircraft missiles. Now that software and improved chips give weapons lots of processing power, there’s no reason anti-aircraft missiles could not be programmed never to lock on to, or try to hit, targets broadcasting a civilian identification code. An international agreement could require this of all nations that make or field long-range SAMs.

Of course verification would be a challenge. But verification of nuclear arms reduction agreements has gone reasonably well, as has verification of multilateral agreements on chemical arms and land mines. There aren’t many nations that manufacture or field long-range advanced SAMs. To get all to agree on programming anti-aircraft missiles so they refuse to strike civilian aircraft is a do-able objective.

What’s behind the downing of Flight MH17 over Ukraine, and what happens next? Five smart views.

Armed pro-Russian separatist stands at a site of a Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 plane crash in the settlement of Grabovo in the Donetsk region

On Thursday Malaysian Airlines Flight 17, with 298 people on board, was shot down over Grabovo, Ukraine, by what officials have described as a Russian-made antiaircraft missile. As investigators uncover details of the attack — including the origins of the missile — Russian President Vladimir Putin’s role in the Ukraine crisis will come under renewed scrutiny. Below are five takes on what happened and why, as well as what the consequences will be.

 The Daily Beast: Why Putin let MH17 get shot down
James Miller questions why Putin would allow the separatists to have a weapon capable of downing a commercial plane, without controlling how it was used. “This is an advanced and battle-proven series of highly sophisticated vehicles which coordinate to track targets with radar and fire missiles so advanced that they were designed to knock smart bombs and cruise missiles out of the sky. Whoever launched this weapon was highly trained and extremely well-equipped.” He explains how the owners of the Buk surface-to-air missile system, which likely brought down the plane, could have confused a commercial airliner for a military jet. (The system works properly, Miller says, when used in tandem with various radar systems.) “Putin’s urgency in Ukraine has turned to recklessness,” writes Miller, and Thursday’s events epitomize that recklessness.

The New Republic: The crash of Malaysia Flight 17 is a game changer: This conflict is now officially out of control
If pro-Russia separatists are indeed responsible for the downed plane, writes The New Republic’s Julia Ioffe, the conflict will enter a new phase, “one that directly threatens European security. The plane, let’s recall, was flying from Amsterdam.”

U.S. spying on Germany: Making enemies out of allies, and for what?

German Chancellor Merkel attends a session of Bundestag in Berlin

What were they thinking?

In the wake of last fall’s revelation that the National Security Agency had wiretapped German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cell phone, the report of U.S. intelligence’s involvement in two other likely cases of spying on Germany is mind-boggling.

Now the story has taken a dramatic new turn, with Germany expelling the CIA chief of station in Berlin — an almost unprecedented step by an ally. This unusual action reflects how seriously the Merkel government takes these spying allegations.

What could the CIA hope to gain by infiltrating the BND, the German Federal Intelligence Service, knowing there was a chance that the operation might be exposed? What was worth this risk?

from John Lloyd:

Could Vladimir Putin give peace a chance in Ukraine and beyond?

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What would it take for Russia to walk a way from violence and seek peaceful coexistence with its neighbors? It's certainly hard to see a way out right now.

The dogs of war in the east have been let slip again. On Monday, Petro Poroshenko, the recently elected Ukrainian president, said a 10-day unilateral truce with the separatist, pro-Russian forces in the eastern part of his country had ended: Force would now be required to “free our lands.”

Ukrainian units were moved in to try to bring the cities and areas controlled by the heavily armed separatists under control. By Tuesday morning, the Ukrainian military was reporting air and artillery strikes.

from John Lloyd:

Are we at war? And why can’t we be sure anymore?

Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron poses for group photograph taken with G8 leaders at the Lough Erne golf resort in Enniskillen

The question -- “Are we at war?” -- seems absurd. Surely, we would know it if we were. But maybe we’re in a new era -- and wars are creeping up on us.

In the decade after the collapse of communism, the United States and its allies seemed invulnerable to challenges, from military to technological to economic. All changed in the 2000s, the dawning of the third millennium: an Age of Disruption. Russia, under a president smarting publicly at the loss of the Soviet empire, has now delivered an answer to decline: aggressive claims on lost territories.

China, admired for its free-market-driven growth since the 1980s, is feared for the strategic expansion that now accompanies it. This happens in its own region: a dispute between Beijing and Tokyo over disputed ownership of the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands remains tense. It is also at work far beyond -- in Africa, the Middle East and Latin America -- where it seeks energy and natural resources.

No matter what Putin says — Russian people have no appetite for war

People attend a rally called "We are together" to support the annexation of Ukraine's Crimea to Russia in Red Square in central Moscow

Russia and the West are again at odds, eying each other with suspicion over Moscow’s annexation of Crimea and support of armed separatists in Eastern Ukraine. Basic rules of the game for security, stability and prosperity in Europe and beyond are at stake. Some commentators are calling this a “new Cold War.”

But the crucial fact is that the public on each side does not have any appetite for a sustained conflict.

Attention has focused on the key leaders — President Barack Obama, Russian President Vladimir Putin, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Putin has used his acts of aggression to build public support. Yet the focus should be on whether the Russian people want renewed confrontation — or would even countenance something like a “new Cold War.”

Putin face-off: Make Schwarzenegger our man in Moscow

arnold & putin -- facing out!!

Russian President Vladimir Putin is star-struck.

He has the American action star Steven Seagal talking up Moscow’s Crimean policies. He extended Russian citizenship to the French movie icon Gérard Depardieu, who now owns a vineyard in Crimea. He basks in the ways that Russia’s cultural and artistic cognoscenti are supporting Moscow’s aggression in Ukraine.

This offers the United States an unexpected opening. If Washington really wants to wield more influence over Putin, President Barack Obama need only place one call: to former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. Give “The Governator” a sequel as the next U.S. ambassador to Russia.

US actor Arnold Schwarzenegger poses for a picture in front of the Saint Basil cathedral on the Red ..Compare Schwarzenegger to Washington’s most recent ambassador, Michael McFaul. A Stanford political science professor, McFaul tended to follow his academic interests — focusing on building a civil society — which rubbed the Kremlin the wrong way and often hampered diplomatic efforts. Even John Tefft, a career diplomat and the former U.S. ambassador to Lithuania, Georgia and Ukraine who may be getting the Moscow post, is too well-known for his tough anti-Russian stance. He is unlikely to improve Washington’s relations with the Kremlin.

from Breakingviews:

Gazprom/Ukraine dispute is proxy for Putin’s whims

By Pierre Briançon 

The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.

Europe has long been used to the perennial drama of “Ukraine versus Gazprom,” but this year’s version is not your run-of-the-mill gas price dispute. Making good on a longstanding threat, Gazprom has said it will deliver gas to Ukraine only if it has been pre-paid. This comes after the Russian energy group failed to settle a dispute with Naftogaz, its Kiev-backed counterpart, over what it claims are more than $4 billion of overdue bills.

As summer nears, the decision will have limited immediate consequences on Europe’s energy supplies. Gazprom says it will continue to provide gas to the rest of the continent and has the means to bypass Ukraine. The two sides may be headed to international arbitration – by far the best way to settle the dispute. Gazprom has some grounds for feeling that it has been too patient with its Ukrainian client.

Post Iraq, U.S. must rely on covert action

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Covert actions are now crucial to U.S. foreign policy. After the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Washington should rely more on CIA-driven covert operations and less on military force in the world’s hotspots.

Ukraine could be a case in point. For covert action means not just collecting information (espionage), but also political or paramilitary efforts that help support political organizations, local media and on occasion, insurgents. Under the CIA’s charter, the government maintains plausible deniability for all these actions.

I’ve long advocated for greater use of this tool of statecraft — and not only because I ran the CIA’s Afghanistan Task Force during the successful effort to drive the Russians out of Afghanistan in 1986-87, along with many other covert operations during my 32 years at the intelligence agency.

from Breakingviews:

Russia puts gas-hungry China in a bear hug

By Ethan Bilby
The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.

Russia has signed a long-awaited gas pipeline deal with China, and it leaves the People’s Republic in a bear hug. Russia gets a new market outside the increasingly frosty European Union. Oil major PetroChina gets to balance out some losses from low regulated prices at home. But the optics of the deal shred Beijing’s pretensions to political neutrality.

Russia could use a friend. EU countries have been planning to diversify supply away from dependence on Russia, which provides a third of their energy needs – especially after a dispute in 2009 saw gas cut off. Annexing Ukraine’s southern Crimea region has raised the temperature further. New pipelines from places like Azerbaijan are designed to limit Moscow’s leverage.

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