A lot has been shown up by the unusual disappearance of and search for Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 over the past month. The International Air Travel Association is right to call for improvements, noting: "We cannot let another aircraft simply vanish.\
How can an array of radars and satellites deployed for various purposes be harnessed when an aircraft slips off civilian radar screens and automated signalling systems do not function for one reason or another?
Gaps also exist in certain areas, like the South China Sea, where technology is not being harnessed to scan the maritime domain for threats to “security, safety, the economy or the environment”, as the Centre for Strategic and International Studies noted.
Gaps at an international level include the glaring absence of a chain of command and specific protocols to direct multinational efforts linked to unprecedented aviation disasters – tracing the plane’s trajectory, pinpointing the crash location and racing to the spot. These are needed all the more when operating under very hostile natural conditions and when hidebound practices of certain national agencies hinder the smooth transnational flow of critical resources.
While it is gratifying to see a host of nations readily deploy vessels and aircraft to join the frantic search, inefficiencies and delays surfaced because of loose direction.
For example, Thailand took 10 days to give Malaysia potentially useful data captured by its military radar because it said an initial request for information had been too vague. Without agreed protocols, there is also a risk of a country embroiled in maritime boundary disputes taking an unwelcome lead in searches in order to strengthen its claim. It would be far better if a framework exists for military-to-military coordination when disasters strike and for mobilising all the information one can muster. Similar multinational cooperation is much needed for the in-flight tracking of civilian aircraft.
In a renewed spirit of cooperation, mechanisms ought to be developed for improved communication among key decision-makers directing search, humanitarian and disaster relief efforts – both within a nation and with their counterparts elsewhere. This should cover communication of data to the public to avoid presenting information that is vague or contradicted by another set of officials. Such lapses needlessly add to the distress of the families of missing victims.
Importantly, all agreed procedures for disaster management cooperation should be practised regularly in the region if they are to be deemed credible and effective. No country can manage a bewildering set of cross-border events alone, nor should it be expected to.