Malaysian Radar Spotlighted in New MH370 Report

 - March 27, 2015, 7:31 AM
Secondary surveillance radar (SSR) returns around Kuala Lumpur International Airport, from a recording shown on the AAT stand at the LIMA show. Air traffic controllers have little experience of tracking aircraft from primary radar returns. (Photo: Chris Pocock)

The recent release by the Malaysian Ministry of Transport of a Factual Information report on the MH370 disappearance has provided more detail about the failure of the Royal Malaysian Air Force (RMAF) air defense radar system to identify and track the errant airliner. However, the report by the Malaysian Annex 13 Safety Investigation Team does not specify the military radars involved, continuing a pattern of withholding sensitive defense information that was evident during government briefings at the time of the disappearance. According to the director-general of Malaysia’s Department of Civil Aviation (DCA), one of the lessons learned from the MH370 incident is the need for greater coordination between military and civilian radar operators.  

The contention that MH370 "turned back" over the South China Sea (SCS), crossed the Malaysian peninsula, turned again over Penang and headed over the Andaman Sea, is based mostly on the analysis of primary radar recordings from the civilian ATC radars at the Kuala Lumpur (KUL) Area Control Centre (ACC) and at Kota Bahru on the east coast of Malaysia; plus (apparently) the air defense radars operated by the RMAF south of Kota Bahru at Jerteh, and on Penang Island off the west coast. It was not until these primary radar recordings were analyzed that a second search area to the west and northwest of the Malaysian peninsula was created, four days after the disappearance. After a further three days, the Inmarsat "handshake" calculations caused the search focus for MH370 to shift again, to an area of the Indian Ocean thousands of miles from Malaysia.

Secondary surveillance radar (SSR) reporting from MH370 ceased shortly after it crossed from Malaysian into Vietnamese airspace over the SCS. Three radar industry and ATC sources in southeast Asia consulted by AIN confirmed that air traffic controllers rely almost exclusively on SSR and receive little or no refresher training on the use of primary radar after their initial qualification. Military radar controllers also rely on SSR to identify civilian air traffic.

The crucial last primary radar traces of what is said to be MH370 were recorded by the relatively modern RAT-31DL air defense radar on Penang that is controlled by RMAF personnel at nearby Butterworth airbase on the mainland. From replayed recordings, investigators have concluded that MH370 headed northwest toward waypoints Vampi and Mekar, which would be at the limit of the Penang radar’s range. DCA director-general Azharuddin Abdul Rahman told a conference at Malaysia’s Langkawi International Maritime and Aerospace Show (LIMA) last week that neighboring nations “have confirmed from their radar that MH370 did not fly over their airspace.”  When queried by AIN how he could be sure of this, given the poor performance of Malaysia’s own radar operators, Azharuddin declined to comment. At least one Indonesian and one Thai air defense radar was in range of MH370’s projected flight path.

Nearly all the civilian radars in Malaysia have been supplied by Selex System Integrati (Si), and nearly all the military radars by Selex ES and predecessor company Alenia Marconi Systems (AMS). Selex Si has been in a joint venture partnership with a Malaysian government-nominated company—Advanced Air Traffic Systems (AAT)since 1994, for the supply of radars, radios, navaids, control centers, maintenance and training to the DCA. AMS and Selex ES have supplied Martello and RAT-31 surveillance radars and sector operating centers (SOCs) to the RMAF.

The near-monopoly of the Anglo-Italian company was broken in 2011 when Thales Raytheon Systems (TRS) won the contract to upgrade the RMAF’s Air Defence Sector 3 in the geographically separate eastern Malaysia with a GroundMaster 400 radar and SOC. The work was completed in 2013-14, and at LIMA last week, the Malaysian Ministry of Defence said it is awarding a contract to TRS for the maintenance of the Sector 3 SOC. Previously, all maintenance contracts for the RMAF’s air defense systems went to another Malaysian government-nominated company, Zetro Services. Sector 3 was out of range of the supposed flight path of MH370.