Opinion

Gregg Easterbrook

There’s a technical fix that could help ensure other civilian airliners aren’t shot down

Jul 18, 2014 16:14 UTC

July 18 (Reuters) – The awful crash of Malaysian Flight 17
in the 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.

Modern radar-guided long-range anti-aircraft missiles – like
the one apparently used to shoot down Malaysian Flight 17, like
the one the United States 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 to hit.

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.

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

Jul 18, 2014 15:54 UTC

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.

So long and thanks for all the fish

Dec 28, 2011 17:49 UTC

Pundits, columnists and editorialists are good at saying who and what they don’t like. But what is it that they do like? All opinion-makers should be required to pen regular accounts of who and what they admire. As my two-year stint as a Reuters weekly columnist concludes – you’re not out of the woods, I may pop up occasionally – let me offer an incomplete accounting of ideas, organizations and people I view as worthy of praise:

World Vision: Many Christians conveniently ignore Jesus’s teachings about the poor. Many Americans don’t care about the billion people globally who are impoverished. World Vision, an evangelical organization, combats both problems by working to end poverty in developing nations. World Vision has done more to help the global poor than most governments, is pragmatic regarding economics, and its staffers don’t proselytize. There are few organizations one can admire without reservation: World Vision is one.

Barack Obama: His “next year we will get serious about the national debt” act is wearing thin. But in the main, Obama has been a good president – and Americans are turning post-racial so quickly that already we seem to shrug about the incredible historic significance of an African-American in the Oval Office.

Really, really big questions

Dec 23, 2011 17:37 UTC

Physicists in Switzerland just reported they are closing in on the “Higgs boson,” a hypothesized ultra-small unit that may be the building block of subatomic particles. Let’s hope they are right, so European taxpayers get a return on the $10 billion complex built to look for the Higgs boson.

Whether this particle is found will not affect your life in any way. But the search for abstract knowledge is part of the human quest.

Last year as the holidays approached, I reviewed the state of understanding of the size and age of the cosmos. This year for the holidays, the topic is what science knows (or thinks it knows) about some fundamental questions of nature.

Who would Obama rather run against: Mitt or Newt?

Dec 15, 2011 15:44 UTC

By Gregg Easterbrook
The opinions expressed are his own.


Conventional wisdom says the Republican presidential nomination will go to Mitt Romney or Newt Gingrich. This could change – don’t be surprised if it changes more than once. But suppose conventional wisdom proves correct. If you were Barack Obama, which would you rather run against?

A follower of polls might say, “Of course Obama wants to run against Gingrich.” An Obama-Gingrich race could end with a walkover for the incumbent, as happened in LBJ-Goldwater of 1964 and Nixon-McGovern of 1972.

Gingrich, some thinking goes, has a borderline personality. His past is full of strange diatribes on a weird range of subjects. As Ronald Reagan sometimes confused movies with reality, Gingrich confuses science fiction novels with reality. He threw a temper tantrum about his seat on Air Force One. Hardly anyone likes him personally. He was a transparent opportunist with Fannie and Freddie, organizations that voters hate. Gingrich is proficient at bloviating, and the one time in his life he held actual responsibility as Speaker of the House he did a terrible job. Would you trust the nation’s budget to a man who ran a $1 million tab at Tiffany?

A tax on both their houses

Dec 8, 2011 20:40 UTC

By Gregg Easterbrook
The views expressed are his own.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo just struck a deal with his state legislature for a long-term tax increase on the well-off, while California Governor Jerry Brown recently said he wants a November 2012 voter referendum aimed at raising the state’s top tax rate.

Conservatives predictably are in a tizzy, liberals in a transport of delight. Moderates might simply be glad to learn that California and New York are dealing with budget deficits on their own, rather than demanding a bailout.

Both states are moving to raise their top-rate taxes on personal income, making the rates border on confiscatory when one combines it with the federal and local taxes. Yet both are holding property taxes down. In June, Cuomo persuaded the New York state legislature to impose a cap on property taxes. California is entering its fourth decade of property taxes capped at a low level for most homeowners, under Proposition 13, passed in 1978.

Books that deserve a list of their own

Dec 1, 2011 16:30 UTC

Gift-buying season is upon us. And so are books-of-the-year lists. Here are some new books that have not necessarily made it on to any book list, but which are nonetheless good reads and good gifts:

WINNING THE WAR ON WAR by Joshua Goldstein

This is the most important political book of the year. It deserves substantial attention and is worthy of awards. Goldstein, a professor emeritus at American University, shows in meticulous detail that Iraq, Afghanistan and Somalia are terrible exceptions to what is otherwise a trend of steady decline in incidence, intensity and severity of human combat. Cable news creates an impression of general carnage: yet with each passing year, nations and tribal groups harm each other less, both directly through war and indirectly through conflict. “Book trailers” are a mixed blessing; the trailer for “Winning the War on War” is worth watching.

Steven Pinker, a better-known writer, also published a book this autumn about the decline of violence. Pinker’s “The Better Angels of Our Nature” is also worth reading or giving. Pinker concentrates on the evolution of morality (how violence has gradually come to be seen as wrong), whereas Goldstein’s focus is politics (the policy choices that reduce conflict and prevent harm).

The super committee fails so let’s go on a spending spree

Nov 23, 2011 19:05 UTC

The super committee has predictably failed – maybe there was green kryptonite hidden in its meeting room. Months of nearly round-the-clock debate about reigning in the national debt, conducted at the highest levels of government, come to a close with nothing done about the problem. This is the essence of contemporary Washington: lots of empty talk, interest groups appeased, all difficult decisions indefinitely tabled and the national interest ignored.

What comes next? Most likely, Congress will make the national debt even worse.

Republicans want to extend the George W. Bush top-rate tax cuts. Democrats want to extend the Barack Obama payroll tax cut, and enact yet another bonus extension of unemployment benefits. One or all may happen by Christmas as both parties switch to full-blown pandering mode.

If the costs in the December 2010 stimulus bill are any guide, a package of extended tax cuts for the well-off, payroll tax cuts for everyone and bonus payments to the unemployed will add around $700 billion to the national debt.

The shock awaiting if the ‘super committee’ fails

Nov 17, 2011 17:19 UTC

Action by the debt-reduction ‘super committee’ is due in less than a week. You will not be surprised to learn the super committee may only announce grandiose goals, while “deferring” specifics to some unspecified future point.

If, after months of hype, the super committee turns out to be a Potemkin committee, taking no action against the tide of government red ink, here is what will happen: Absolutely nothing.

That’s why falling dangerously arrears on national fiscal policy is so seductive – in the short term, nothing happens. Greece, Italy, Portugal – their governments made irresponsible decision after irresponsible decision, and nothing happened. So the irresponsible decisions continued.

Romney touches third rail – and lives

Nov 9, 2011 21:37 UTC

Increasingly, Mitt Romney seems the Republican candidate who has given serious thought to governing – to what specific policy actions he would take if he became president. The other Republican candidates seem mainly concerned with self-promotion and applause lines, while Newt Gingrich’s “Day 1 Project” seems more like a dress rehearsal than a real concept for governing.

If Romney is the serious challenger to President Barack Obama, then his fiscal policy speech a few days ago bears inspection. It was notably better than most campaign speeches, and contained both gold and dross. Here are some highlights:

Gold: “We cannot with moral conscience borrow trillions of dollars that can only be repaid by our children.” Reckless borrowing, with the invoice passed to our children – nobody in power in Washington right now will be asked to repay the national debt – is not just numbers, it is a moral issue. Romney recognizes this.

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