Could Malaysian Military Have Prevented Jet's Disappearance?

At one point, Malaysian military radar saw Flight 370 flying back west over Malaysia and toward the Andaman Sea. Why didn't Malaysia scramble jets and try to either stop or follow the plane?

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

More mystery in the story of that missing jetliner. Malaysian officials say files from a flight simulator owned by the captain of the plane were deleted last month. They're trying to retrieve them. Investigators are examining the pilot's simulator, to see if it provides any clues about the fate of the jet.

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The search for the plane has now expanded to nearly 3 million square miles, and finding it could hinge on countries sharing sensitive military radar information. Malaysian military radar last spotted the plane at 2:15 a.m. March 8th, after the aircraft changed routes and headed west.

GREENE: A dozen days on, some people continue to question why, at that point, Malaysia's air force didn't pursue the jet. NPR's Frank Langfitt reports.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: At yesterday's news conference in Kuala Lumpur, a Chinese journalist asked a question that's been on people's minds.

UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST: Why didn't Malaysia's air force send a fighter to intercept it, at that time?

LANGFITT: Earlier this week, an anchor with PBS NewsHour phrased it like this...

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UNIDENTIFIED BROADCASTER: Malaysian radar essentially picked up this aircraft, but nobody sent up a warning flare; that there were actually jets ready to scramble, but nobody did.

LANGFITT: Rodzali Daud, chief of Malaysia's air force, said radar spotted the plane about 200 miles off the Malaysian coast. But the radar couldn't determine exactly what kind of jet it was. And it didn't appear to be a threat.

RODZALI DAUD: Because, to the radar operator, it is a trail of a civil aircraft going up north. It's not classified as hostile.

LANGFITT: While that answer may puzzle some, those who follow air defense in Southeast Asia say it makes sense, in context.

TIM HUXLEY: I wasn't altogether surprised.

LANGFITT: Tim Huxley runs the International Institute for Strategic Studies Asia, in Singapore. He says Malaysia, which has a population of just 30 million, doesn't have a big military budget - or a strong air defense - in part because it doesn't face direct threats from its neighbors.

HUXLEY: The other thing is, we don't know what the staffing levels were at the time of this incident. We may be talking about a fairly skeletal staff.

LANGFITT: One Malaysian military analyst said even if the air force had wanted to scramble jets, it wouldn't have had many to choose from. Malaysia's entire front-line fighter fleet only numbers 34, according to Janes Defence Weekly. Huxley says comparing Malaysia to more advanced countries isn't realistic. The U.S. has the world's biggest military budget as well as one of its top air defenses.

HUXLEY: Malaysia, on the other hand, is a middle-income country, still a developing country. It has never faced the sort of Cold War threat that the United States faced.

LANGFITT: Bob Mann worked as an executive with American Airlines, Pan Am and TWA. He says even if radar operators didn't see Flight 370 as a security threat, Malaysia should have alerted its neighbors because it was a potential hazard to other planes.

BOB MANN: Given that the - where the aircraft was apparently located is closely proximate to both Thai airspace and Indonesian airspace, it would have made sense for some sort of an all-points bulletin to be issued.

LANGFITT: But sharing radar information does not appear to be very common in the area. Yesterday, the Thai military said its radar detected a plane back on March 8th that may have been Flight 370. It spotted the aircraft just minutes after the Malaysian airliner's communications went down. But Thailand said it didn't share this information earlier because Malaysian officials didn't specifically ask for it.

TOM BANACKI: Why wasn't this done within hours?

LANGFITT: Tom Banacki is a retired air traffic controller with more than three decades of experience. He trained controllers in China, Thailand and Saudi Arabia. Banacki says there is no excuse for withholding this kind of information.

BANACKI: I mean, the whole world was looking for this airplane. Doesn't somebody have some caring about, hey, we got some data. We won't tell you where we got it from. But we have some data you may be interested in, and what can it do to help you?

LANGFITT: Malaysia says the plane may have flown as far as the southern Indian Ocean, or deep into central Asia. Trying to narrow that enormous area may well depend on how generous other nations are with their radar information.

Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Shanghai.

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