The Corner

Freedom of the Skies at Risk

Back in April 2013, I wrote on The Corner about the dangers of surface-to-air missiles (SAM) for commercial aviation. The world has long taken freedom of aerial navigation for granted. Unlike freedom of the seas, which is still presumed to need the constant presence of global navies like that of the United States, every year nearly 3 billion passengers unthinkingly board onto millions of flights, and both numbers are growing by leaps and bounds. The war crime that destroyed Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 is a turning point in the world’s awareness that the skies must be defended as much as the waters.

There are, of course, salient differences between the two, and the aerial environment is far more complex. The type of protection that can be given to civilian airliners is far less even than that that can possibly come to the aid of ships in distress. The missile system apparently used to down MH17 is an older Soviet type, but that does not matter to unprotected civilian aircraft, since it is reported to be able to track and target objects flying up to 72,000 feet, far beyond any non-military jet. MH17 was flying, as everyone now knows, at 33,000 feet. Thus, another new danger has been added to that of the tens of thousands of shoulder-launched anti-aircraft missiles that can target planes during their vulnerable ascent and descent phases, and the portable mortars that can be launched at planes on the ground. In fact, every segment of a commercial airliner’s journey is now at theoretical risk from any group with its hands on either type of weapon.

Airlines, governments, and international aviation organizations will undoubtedly spend the next months considering how to protect those 3 billion people, the vast majority of which will never be targeted, though a growing percentage will be at risk. Anti-missile systems for airplanes are expensive and not very effective, and even the U.S. Air Force could never come close to providing protection in the air even for U.S. international flights. Nor can global air forces reliably or legally be sent to destroy nests of suspected SAMs or groups with portable anti-aircraft missiles. 

This of course does not mean that civilian airliners will get start getting blown out of the skies. However, given the proliferation of weapons of all types around the globe, international air travelers may begin thinking twice about which routes they will fly. The “internal” threat from terrorists traveling inside airplanes is now matched by an “external” threat from transiting over unstable regions. 

Unfettered global air travel has been both a fundamental feature, as well as core driver, of globalization. International conferences, such as the Australian AIDS conference that was attracting up to 100 specialists on Flight MH17; multinational companies; the multi-billion dollar tourist industry; and international cargo services all have developed and become dependent on freedom of the skies. To deal with this threat, already congested routes may have to change far more often, insurance rates may rise, and some economic activity may eventually be negatively impacted. MH17 is a tragic reminder that, as the world becomes more unstable, all of its interconnected parts are at greater risk, including young brothers and sisters flying back home with their grandfather. 


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