Maldives sighting: A piece of the MH370 puzzle?

Maldives sighting: A piece of the MH370 puzzle?

Interestingly, the sighting of an unidentified jumbo jet in the Maldives on 8 March, just after 6:00 AM, doesn’t conflict with any other known information about the missing Malaysian Air 777.

So that’s a point worth considering. Before going further, I should mention that I don’t think the aircraft stopped in the Maldives and remained there. There would be no way to hide it, on any island where it could have landed or tried to land. But the Maldives would be one heck of a place to refuel.

So here’s the story. (Be sure to read Bryan Preston’s post on this as well. He vacationed there some years back.)

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According to local media, villagers from Kuda Huvadhoo, a town of about 3,800 in Dhaalu Atoll in the central Maldives archipelago, saw a very large, “low-flying jumbo jet” go overhead around 6:15 AM on 8 March, heading from northwest to southeast (see here and here). Residents said they were prompted to go outside and look by the extraordinary noise the aircraft was making. Observers said the plane was low enough that they could make out the doors, and some described a paint scheme that sounds like a Malaysian Air aircraft.

Maldivians suggested that the plane appeared to be headed for the airport in Addu Atoll on Gan Island. That airport is not the main international airport in the capital of Male, which is in the northern half of the Maldives chain. Gan’s is a smaller airport, but is also an international airport. Its runway length is just under 8,700 feet, shorter than optimum for landing a 777. It is noteworthy that a Dubai-based company, Gulf Cobla, is currently working on expanding the runway and revetment facilities at the Gan International Airport.

Center seat in the Indian Ocean.

It’s also of interest that recent political events in the Maldives have consolidated management of the main airports (in Male and Gan) under a quasi-public Maldivian company created in a partial privatization initiative in 2010. That part isn’t remarkable in itself, but the management of the airport in Male, Ibrahim Nasir International, had been contracted under the previous government, in 2010, to an Indian company, with a contract duration of 25 years. In late 2012, however, the contract with the Indian company was summarily abrogated, and the Indians were given one week to vacate the premises. The quasi-public Maldivian company, MACL, took over management of the Ibrahim Nasir International. Earlier in 2012, MACL had formed a partnership to run the Gan airport, Addu International Airport Ltd (AIA).

The Maldives.  Dhaalu and Addu Atolls in the south. Male Atoll in central north.

What intervened between 2010 and mid-2012 was the “coup” in Maldives in February 2012, by which the nation’s first democratically elected president, Mohammed Nasheed, was removed. Hard-line Islamists were behind Nasheed’s ouster, as they were behind his arrest in March 2013 for supposedly having improperly detained a judge prior to the coup. Nasheed was still around to participate in a series of ill-fated elections in the latter half of 2013, but the outcome ultimately accepted by election officials was a victory for Yaamin Abdul Gayoom, the brother of long-time Maldivian strongman and Islamist Maumoon Abdul Gayoom.

Gan Island and international airport in Addu Atoll, Maldives.

For a flavor of the Abdul Gayoom family political tendency, we can note that in January 2014, Yaamin Abdul Gayoom vetoed a bill sent to him by the Maldivian parliament which would have prohibited husbands from raping their wives with the intent to infect them with STDs. In Mr. Abdul Gayoom’s opinion, it is “un-Islamic” to allow a wife to deny her husband sex for any reason.

Rounding out this interesting picture is the information that the United States, up through late 2013, was vigorously pursuing an agreement with the Maldives to gain basing rights and station military forces there. In 2012, Indian observers were seeing something of a U.S. juggernaut: in the perception of some, American influence was peaking, and in 2013, a formal status-of-forces agreement seemed to be in the offing.

But in January 2014, the Abdul Gayoom regime rejected the proposal. I doubt many readers will blame them. Uncle Sam’s not a very good bet right now.

But Americans also need to understand what this is emblematic of: the fact that we’re entering a period in which things are thinkable that didn’t use to be. It’s not as far-fetched as it was five years ago that someone might try to steal a jumbo jet, for what could only be nefarious purposes – and do strange things in goofy places to accomplish the objective.

A couple of additional points. One, if there was a stop in the Maldives, I assume it was for refueling. The other thing it would allow is for the aircraft to obscure its geographic origin in an attempt to enter flight patterns in South Asia or East Africa. This would be more important if the plane was headed for Iran or Pakistan. (I don’t think it was headed for Pakistan. If it had an objective on the western end of the Indian Ocean, I think it would have been Iran or a couple of possibilities in East Africa: perhaps Comoros or Mozambique.)

Getting to Iran from the Indian Ocean would typically require flying through air space monitored continuously by U.S. military assets. This does not mean that U.S. operators would recognize the plane’s precise identity if it showed up on their command and control systems. If it acted normal and was detected in commercial air corridors making like any other airliner, U.S. operators wouldn’t pay it much attention. Nor would they have a reason to challenge the aircraft, since they’re not the civil authorities for the flight region. The plane could have headed for a runway in the extreme southeastern portion of Iran, and spent very little time on the radar screen of a U.S. military asset.

I like the plane’s chances of escaping detection less, after a stop in the Maldives, if the ultimate objective is assumed to be in Central Asia. On the other hand, the chances seem to be even better if we imagine the plane going to East Africa. In any of the postulated cases, the plane would have needed to get back in the air within a couple of hours.

The other point is that this Maldives scenario is compatible with the aircraft’s final “ping” exchanges with the satellite. The arcs along which the plane is thought to have proceeded have been considered the most likely because of calculated assumptions about the aircraft’s distance from the satellite. However, a range ring from the satellite at a steeper angle runs directly through the Maldives. It may or may not be less likely that the plane was located along that range ring; what we can say is that it is possible.

Alternative location for MH370 plane versus Inmarsat satellite. (Government of Malaysia graphic; author annotation)

None of this is to talk ourselves into this particular scenario. But there is something American minds need to come to grips with. There really is a loss of “limits” with the decline of U.S. power. To say that weird things just don’t happen is to assume that the global infrastructure of modern vigilance – complex but quiescent; disciplined and standardized – remains in place. The problem is that there’s no longer a center of gravity – American leadership – keeping it stable.

Vladimir Putin pushed at the old status-quo boundary and found there was nothing there pushing back. We have no basis for assuming that whoever diverted flight MH370 was fated to be less successful. The laws of physics haven’t changed, nor have the laws of probability. But some of the “constants” – the key assumptions – have.

P.S. This (from 15 minutes ago) is not definitive, but interesting.

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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