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Flying the Unfriendly Skies



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In the talks I give to business groups on global risk, I try to describe a world in which today’s international system has broken down. Since it’s an abstract (some would say far-fetched) concept, one of the examples I use is commerical airflight. I note that no one worries about hopping on a jet to visit Paris or attend a conference in Beijing. I also note the international opprobrium heaped on the USSR when it shot down Korean Airlines Flight 007 in 1983, killing 269 passengers. In addition, I’ll mention a recent flight I took from Istanbul to Singapore; the first five hours of the trip went through the airspace of Syria, Iran, and Pakistan, before hitting India. I wasn’t worried, I tell the audience, because there are still international rules broadly accepted with enough threat of retribution that flying even over many dangerous areas or conflict zones is safe. Some of the business executives in my audiences nod, while others think my example is unbelievable or irrelevant. 

Maybe they’ll think twice, after reports came out this week that two surface-to-air missiles were fired from Syria at a Russian passenger jet. There is still a great deal that is unknown about this incident: whether missiles actually were launched, whether the plane was deliberately targeted, if the pilots took (or could have taken) evasive action in a civilian airliner, etc. Yet this may well be a harbinger of the future. Intelligence agencies around the world have been worried by the fact that up to 15,000 MANPADS (man-portable air defense systems) went missing in Libya after the fall of Moammar Qaddafi in 2011. Proliferation of these shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles could alter air travel as we know it, if even a few dozen landed in the wrong hands and were used to bring down civilian planes. 

There is also a broader issue, the question of living in a riskier world, where states are unwilling or unable to protect their citizens, or where threats are far more fluid than a Soviet fighter pilot deciding to fire on a Korean airliner. How far are we from a future in which there are many more “no-go zones” because we can’t control what happens in the skies above them, let alone on the ground? Cutting our defense budget is just part of the changing equation of the world we have grown up in and whose general security we take for granted. The attacks of 9/11 were the wake-up call to a security environment that had already changed dramatically since the end of the Cold War, and which had utterly overwhelmed our governments. A dozen years on, the breakdown in security is spreading, as authoritarian regimes such as Syria fragment, rogue states such as North Korea perfect nuclear-weapons and ballistic-missile programs, and major countries such as China use their newfound strength to push assertively on their territorial claims. 

I’m not saying we won’t be able to fly to London in a decade’s time, but a general breakdown in today’s global security environment seems more and more our likely future. Some things we don’t think twice about, our children may not even contemplate. Russia’s apparently lucky air travelers are among the first to realize this.



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