Asian mysteries: MH370 and the Iranian naval flotilla

Asian mysteries: MH370 and the Iranian naval flotilla

We appear to have ourselves a bona fide mystery.  If anyone in authority knows what happened to the Malaysian Air 777 that took off on 8 March headed for China, he’s not talking.  The most recent revelations, as readers no doubt know, suggest that the plane continued flying for about 7 hours after the last official contact from the cockpit.

The UK Mirror produced a graphic depicting the 634 airfields where the plane would have had the runway length for a safe landing, within a 7-hour flight radius of that last contact point.  See Graphic 1 below.

Meanwhile, analysis of the satellites with which the plane’s systems continued to engage in “pings,” using the “ACARS” automated reporting system, has yielded a pair of arcs: corridors running north and south from the Malay Peninsula in which the plane could have been located while its ACARS responded to pings.  (Graphic 2) Caution: these are very approximate representations, and they do not show tracks.*

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Graphic 1.  Runways that could accommodate the 777. (UK Mirror graphic)
Graphic 1. Runways that could accommodate the 777. (UK Mirror graphic)

Malaysian authorities are delving into the backgrounds of the pilot and co-pilot of Flight MH370.  Theories abound; fuel limitations indicate the plane could have gone as far as Kazakhstan on the northern arc.  Moving along the southern arc for 7 hours would have put it as far south as the Tropic of Capricorn in the vast reaches of the Indian Ocean.  There being no place to land the plane in that region of the south, hijacking it and going there would be a suicide mission.  Authorities are leaning toward the southern route – they haven’t explained the reason; it may relate to physics such as strength and behavior of the final signals from the plane – but making “suicide” add up could be a hard sell.

Graphic 2.  "Arcs" showing potential location of MH370 plane during "ping" exchange with Inmarsat satellite(s).  (Government of Malaysia graphic.)
Graphic 2. “Arcs” showing potential location of MH370 plane during “ping” exchange with Inmarsat satellite(s). (Government of Malaysia graphic.)

Interestingly, however, Reuters has gathered from senior military officers in India and the UK that radar coverage of air activity in South Asia is often spotty or unavailable at night, due largely to the expense.  Air traffic controllers there rely on the planes to report themselves, and on the aircrew to make required contacts with the controllers in each flight information region (FIR).  The lack of radar detection of a suspect aircraft thus doesn’t definitively establish that the Malaysian 777 wasn’t there – even if it maintained a typical and more detectable transit altitude (which saves fuel).

It’s too early and we don’t know enough for well-informed speculation about why the plane was hijacked (whether that was done by one or both of the pilots, or by passengers).  Although the continuation of the pings for 7 hours is significant, we basically don’t know much more than we already did, if our purpose is to identify who would want to “steal” this plane and why.  We already knew it could have got as far as Central or South Asia, or perhaps somewhere in the North Indian Ocean or even the Indonesian archipelago.

Landing and hiding the 777 would, in almost any reasonable scenario, require the complicity of a government somewhere.  I think Iran has the only government in the relevant region that is comprehensively bad.  Some governments, like those of Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and Myanmar, are susceptible to being bought off, if it’s by another government (e.g., Iran’s).  I discount the extremely unlikely scenario in which a government in the region is in cahoots with a non-state terrorist group.

On the other hand, it may be possible for a 777 to land unnoticed, just at dawn, in the eastern wilds of Kazakhstan, close to the border with China.  The possibility has been discussed that the plane has been taken in a plot by Chinese Uighurs, and although I consider that unlikely, we certainly don’t know enough to dismiss the theory.

Will we never know what happened to MH370 – or find out only if it shows up as part of a terrorist act in the future?  Good questions.  Another good question is whether the plane carried a cargo that was worth stealing.  An alternate version of that question is whether a cargo was loaded by a customer who never intended for the plane to get to China.  I have also wondered if someone wanted to steal the plane itself, in order to go through and thoroughly scrub it of all its identifying features.  The only way to do that would be to remove a plane from its formal, normally contracted maintenance regimen – something a national airline or other commercial carrier wouldn’t want to do, as it would attract attention.

Another mystery – at sea

In any case, we’re in waiting mode at this point.  But there’s another interesting mystery developing at the opposite end of Asia.  It’s been increasing since about the third week of February, and it involves the Iranian naval task group that was reportedly headed for the Atlantic.  There has been zero information confirming the task group’s presence in the Atlantic: nothing to indicate that it remains off Africa, or has reached Central America, which it could have done as early as 21 February.  Although I expected the ships to arrive in Venezuela later than that – probably more like late February or early March – and to arrive in silence, in order to offload cargo covertly from the replenishment ship Kharg, we’re up to 15 March and there is still no sign of the two ships (which include the frigate Sabalan).

Like the Iran Times, a Washington, D.C.-based independent media outlet, I have been wondering where the Sabalan and Kharg are.  We’re not the only ones.  Farsi speakers have been able to keep up with the disclosures of the Iranian navy, but the Iranian media statements have been distinctly unhelpful in the last three weeks.

The naval task force was announced in January as the “29th Fleet,” the successor in long-range deployment to the 28th Fleet.  Iran started numbering these deploying “fleets” when she joined the antipiracy operation off Somalia at the end of 2008.  In the weeks since the 29th Fleet deployed in January, the Iranian navy has made a few comments about its approach to the Atlantic (which are linked in my earlier pieces, above).  But the Iranians have also stated during the same period that the 29th Fleet has conducted antipiracy operations in the Gulf of Aden.  (See EA World View link.)

Now, in the past week, Iran has announced that the 29th Fleet ships entered Salalah, Oman – a port on Oman’s southern coast facing the Arabian Sea – for a port visit.  Although the Times of Oman issued a report on this port visit, it appeared to get its information from the Iranian navy, and there is no photo of the ships in port.  The Times story has only what appears to be a file photo of the frigate Sabalan underway, with no information about where or when it was taken.  According to the Times, the Iranian navy says the ships are the Sabalan, the Bandar Abbas, and the Lavan.  There is no indication that the Times has independent knowledge of which ships, if any, are actually in Salalah.

The Iranian 29th Fleet's reported operating area, including Salalah, Oman.  Doesn't compute with Iranian claims that 29th Fleet headed for the Atlantic. (Google map; author annotation)
The Iranian 29th Fleet’s reported operating area, including Salalah, Oman. Doesn’t compute with Iranian claims that 29th Fleet headed for the Atlantic. (Google map; author annotation)

A few things about this announcement.  First, there’s no mention of the Kharg, which reportedly deployed with the Sabalan.  It’s not clear where Kharg is.  Second, the replenishment ship Bandar Abbas and the patrol ship Lavan are implied to be part of the 29th Fleet.  This appears to indicate that the Iranians have been using “29th Fleet” to refer to both the Sabalan-Kharg task group and a separate task group, which has presumably been the one operating in the Gulf of Aden.  Notably, however, the Iranian press statement doesn’t name the ships.  The ships are named only in the Times of Oman report – citing information from the Iranian navy.  That’s odd.

Third, the absence of photos of the ships is a meaningful data point.  If you run a search on “warship in Salalah,” you will find a cornucopia of photos of warships – from various nations – in Salalah, Oman.  It’s in a relatively remote area of Oman, but it’s a busy port, and when foreign warships pull in, there are plenty of images posted online.  Many of them come from Omani media outlets.  It’s unusual for a trio of foreign warships to pull into Salalah without the ships’ presence being commemorated in imagery.

I very much doubt that Sabalan and Kharg have been underway near the Arabian Peninsula all along.  There are too many other warships there whose crews would have seen them – warships from Asian and European nations that are greatly interested in whether the Iranian navy has, as announced, dispatched warships to the Atlantic.  If the two Iranian ships had been spotted there in the last 7 weeks, we would have heard about it.

But where are they?  If Sabalan did enter Salalah earlier this week – and there is no concrete evidence available to the public that she did – where has she been?  And where is Kharg?

It will be another 5 weeks or so before Sabalan and Kharg are due back in home port, according to the 90-day deployment schedule announced in January.  It remains feasible for the ships to be in the Atlantic, perhaps off the west coast of Africa, or even as far as Central America.  But it’s also possible that all they did was enter the Atlantic, down by South Africa, and turn around.  It’s even possible that they didn’t head toward the Atlantic at all.  Hiding out in an Iranian port all this time would be virtually impossible.  But there are other places to go, around the Indian Ocean’s rim, where the probability of detection can be kept low.

What we can say is that the Iranians have been ambiguous and uninformative enough to raise justifiable suspicion about what the Sabalan-Kharg task group is up to.

It seems incredible that in 2014, the world and all its IT systems could lose track of a Boeing 777 jetliner and two Iranian warships.  Perhaps there are at least a handful of national intelligence services that have a better idea where these platforms have been.  All things being equal, I would expect the U.S., Russia, and perhaps China, Israel, and some of the EU nations to be able to track the Iranian warships.  But all things may not be equal.  It is possible for the Iranians to so alter and limit their electronic signatures that the ships would be impossible to distinguish from other shipping – especially in remote areas where confirmation with the crudest but most effective sensor, visual surveillance, is unlikely or impossible.

Are the apparent disappearances related?  There’s not enough information to discuss that intelligently.  But it’s all awfully peculiar.


* At the time of a given ping, the plane could have been located in a long swath along the arcs depicted.  No actual containment area is possible without a fix involving three satellites; if only two satellites are in communication with the plane, the result is, in earth-geographic terms, a range calculation from the satellites, but not a defined area.  The range calculations are themselves approximate, as small Doppler changes in the signal received at the satellite translate into significant distances over land on the earth’s surface.  That’s why officials are speaking of “corridors,” which indicate an error area on either side of the arcs.

The representation below of the arc of possible location – north versus south – at the time of the final ping at 8:11 AM gives an accurate mental idea of the range of possibility we’re talking about. The graphic was posted by a user at the PPrune forum.

Probability arc/areas for MH370 plane during last ping at 8:11 AM.  (Graphic via PPrune forum; see footnote text for link)
Probability arc/areas for MH370 plane during last ping at 8:11 AM. (Graphic via PPrune forum; see footnote text for link)
J.E. Dyer

J.E. Dyer

J.E. Dyer is a retired Naval Intelligence officer who lives in Southern California, blogging as The Optimistic Conservative for domestic tranquility and world peace. Her articles have appeared at Hot Air, Commentary’s Contentions, Patheos, The Daily Caller, The Jewish Press, and The Weekly Standard.


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