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.