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.

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