(Gregg Easterbrook is the author of nine books and is a
contributing editor to The Atlantic. The opinions espressed here
are his own.)
By Gregg Easterbrook
July 18 The awful crash of Malaysian Flight 17
in the Ukraine combat zone seems likely to have been caused by a
long-range surface-to-air missile. At this writing, who launched
the missile remains undetermined. Regardless of who's guilty -
why is a modern software-driven weapon capable of striking a
civilian jet in the first place?
All commercial airliners send out transponder signals that
identify them as civilian. In most cases, what's employed is a
protocol called Mode C, which is not used by military aircraft.
Modern radar-guided long-range anti-aircraft missiles - like
the one apparently used to shoot down Malaysian Flight 17, like
the one the United States cruiser Vincennes used in 1988
accidentally to shoot down Iran Air Flight 655, killing 290
civilians - don't pay any attention to what mode a target's
transponder is in. They lock onto a radar image chosen by the
gunner, then once launched relentlessly seek to hit.
That's the old way of designing long-range anti-aircraft
missiles. Now that software and improved chips give weapons lots
of processing power, there's no reason anti-aircraft missiles
could not be programmed never to lock on to, or try to hit,
targets broadcasting a civilian identification code. An
international agreement could require this of all nations that
make or field long-range SAMs.
Of course verification would be a challenge. But
verification of nuclear arms reduction agreements has gone
reasonably well, as has verification of multilateral agreements
on chemical arms and land mines. There aren't many nations that
manufacture or field long-range advanced SAMs. To get all to
agree on programming anti-aircraft missiles so they refuse to
strike civilian aircraft is a do-able objective.
Cheating would be a worry. But the world's militaries have
been reasonably good at not shooting at vehicles and ships
marked with the red cross or red crescent. And cases of putting
those symbols on fighting vehicles or ships have been rare. It
would be impossible to guarantee that a military - or a
quasi-military such as the Russian separatists in Ukraine -
would not try to cheat by broadcasting a civilian code from a
military aircraft. But this would only work once.
The weapons officer of the Vincennes saw a radar blip headed
straight toward his ship, and made a horrible mistake. Whoever
launched the missile that likely destroyed Malaysia Flight 17
would have seen a radar blip headed straight toward him. Today's
long-range anti-aircraft missiles are not programmed to know
what they are flying toward, only to seek the blip chosen by the
This needs to change. Improved electronics could make it
practical to program long-range anti-aircraft missiles to refuse
to attack aircraft broadcasting on a civilian transponder mode.
As ever-more civilian aircraft take to the world's skies, the
need to protect them increases daily.
Manufacturers boast of making "smart weapons." Someday there
might be precision-guided munitions that refuse to lock on to
hospitals or refugee centers - GPS locations of such places
could be loaded into the bombs' software. A smart tank that
refuses to fire toward a school can be imagined technologically.
For today, the first step should be an international
agreement to engineer anti-aircraft missiles so they will not
track or seek targets broadcasting in civilian mode. Much of the
aviation world is moving to a new. data-rich broadcasting
standard called ADS-B. Long-range weapons need to be "taught"
that standard too.
In the era of beyond-visual-range missiles, numerous
civilian jetliners have been shot down by mistake. The United
States and Russian Federation should join to forge an
international initiative to prevent this from happening again.