Russia-Ukraine Standoff Poses Real Dangers to Aviation

 - February 17, 2022, 7:28 AM
A FlightRadar24 map published on February 15 shows the extent to which airline traffic has been avoiding overflights of Ukraine in recent days as military tensions with Russian continue. (Image: FlightRadar24)

While disruption to air transport links in and around Ukraine has so far been relatively limited, behind-the-scenes airlines and business aircraft operators have been scrambling to determine how they can ensure the safety of their operations with the threat of a Russian invasion of the country still looming large. The risk management equation is complex and fast-changing, leaving companies to take their cues largely from advisories issued by their own governments in the absence of coordinated multi-lateral decision-making by bodies such as the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO).

In some cases, decisions have been forced on carriers, such as earlier this week when insurance companies suspended cover for local operators such as Ukrainian International Airlines and SkyUp Airlines, with leasing companies insisting on some aircraft being moved to safety in locations such as Spain and Serbia. On Thursday, Spain’s Vueling became the latest of a small group of carriers to suspend flights to and from Ukraine. This followed the suspension of services by KLM and Emirates from February 14, and a decision by Norwegian Airlines to stop overflying the country.

Beyond the guidance available to operators and their insurers, the air transport industry also looks to open-source intelligence to get a complete assessment of the operational risks they face. Getting access to this is one thing, but making sense of it in real-time is more challenging, and this is where specialists like Osprey Flight Solutions aim to complete the picture for their clients. It uses artificial intelligence and machine learning techniques to provide a systematic risk assessment of airspace and the situation on the ground.

According to Osprey’s chief intelligence officer Matthew Borie, this approach means that decisions taken don’t need to be completely binary in terms of either to fly or not to fly. For example, over the past week or so carriers including Lufthansa, Austrian Airlines, and Swiss have ceased overnight stops at Ukrainian airports, mitigating the risks with fast turnarounds on the ground.

However, even with the standoff between Russia and Ukraine, and its NATO allies, remaining a cold war situation so far, the threat of violence endangering safe flight operations remains very real. Borie, a former U.S. Air Force officer with experience training fighter pilots to deal with air defense systems, pointed to the threat posed by the Kremlin’s S400 and S300 missile systems deployed not only on the disputed Eastern border but also along Ukraine’s northern frontier with Belarus and in the Crimean region that Russia annexed in 2014. With a range of between 200 and 400 km, these weapons pose a potential threat to almost any aircraft passing through Ukrainian or adjacent airspace.

“Over the past 20 years or so, the last three aircraft to be shot down by surface-to-air-missiles were linked to Ukraine in some way and all involved aircraft being misidentified in some way,” Borie said. He was referring to the infamous shooting down of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 over Ukraine (allegedly by Russian-backed militia), the January 2020 event in which Iranian air defense forces destroyed Ukrainian International Airlines flight 752, and the 2001 incident in which Ukraine’s military shot down a Siberia Airlines flight over the Black Sea.

Borie cautioned that if fighting breaks out between Russian and Ukrainian forces, “there is a large possibility for misidentification of aircraft because both sides are going to use electronic warfare jammers and spoofing technology to create false targets, and the use of electromagnetic jammers on Russian radar will undermine GPS [navigation systems]. He pointed out that these dangers have been present in Ukraine’s Eastern airspace since the invasion of Crimea in early 2014, prompting many airlines to avoid the zone altogether, even though this has meant costly detour routings.

In a conflict with Russia, other threats could escalate in the air above the Black, Baltic Barents, and Norwegian seas, and also in the airspace of nearby countries including Bulgaria, Turkey, Romania, Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. Increased air patrols by Russian and NATO forces could, according to Borie, lead to unsafe interceptions of civilian airliners.

Last August’s chaotic scenes in Afghanistan when the Taliban took control of the country provide another possible foretaste of what could unfold in Ukraine, according to Osprey’s analysis. “When the Afghan military surrendered to the Taliban, there was a rapid degrading of services at the airport in Kabul after air traffic controllers and security staff fled,” he told AIN. “No flights could move until the U.S. military took over.” Since then, ICAO has been able to implement some contingency coordination of operations, as it also has done in trouble spots such as Ethiopia.

Beyond the all-too-real possibility of airliners finding themselves in harm’s way in and around Ukraine, the impact of possible political/economic sanctions could also be felt. “Aviation could become a weapon in these sanctions,” Borie predicted, with bans on overflights of Russia possibly disrupting services connecting Europe and Asia and supply chains for items such as aircraft parts being badly disrupted for Russian operators.

On February 18, Osprey is hosting a free webinar to provide updates on the security, operational, regulatory, and insurance situation for aviation activity in Russia and Ukraine. It starts at 1 p.m. Universal Time.