BY RSN SINGH

The statement by former US Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott regarding the Malaysian plane mystery: “Direction, fuel load & range now lead some to suspect hijackers planned a 9/11-type attack on an Indian city”, was not off the cuff or given in jest. It was a deliberate remark on twitter. It was not a statement from an ordinary person, but from someone who was closely linked to the US foreign policy and intelligence apparatus for almost seven years under the Clinton administration from 1994 to 2001. Talbott is known for his expertise on South Asia, nuclear arms control and Russia. It may be recalled that India’s then foreign minister had several rounds of talks with Talbott between 1998 and 2000, famous as ‘Jaswant-Talbott Talks’. The talks covered a wide range of strategic issues, and are considered to have created the spade work for Indo-US nuclear deal. It is therefore unlikely that Talbott would have made a statement on the missing Malaysian aircraft without an agenda based on some intelligence inputs.

The impact of his remark has been that it has buttressed the theory that the scene of disappearance/accident of the aircraft is in Asia and the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). It may be reiterated that so far the search for the aircraft has been overwhelmingly confined to the IOR, completely discarding the Pacific Ocean. Is it deliberate?

[sociallocker]Russia-China Angle

Even as the search for the aircraft by 26 countries continue primarily in the IOR, another extremely widely read source (http://www.whatdoesitmean.com/index1753.htm) also maintains the IOR theory. However, it says that the plane was carrying some highly suspicious cargo and was headed for the US base at Diego Garcia. As per this source the ‘suspicious cargo’ was first loaded on a US-flagged container ship MV Maersk Alabama at Seychelles. Guarding this cargo were two former US Navy SEALs personnel, Mark Daniel Kennedy and Jeffrey Keith Reynolds. They were employed by a security firm, The Trident Group, which specializes in protection of vital transfers of both atomic and biological materials throughout the world. No sooner the cargo was offloaded in Malaysia and consigned to Malaysian Flight No. 370 for further transportation; both Kennedy and Reynolds were found dead on the ship. The reason ascribed was ‘overdose of heroine’.

Further, the source says that the Russian Directorate of the General Staff of the Armed Forces (GRU) was monitoring the movement of this suspicious cargo right from the beginning and had alerted the China’s Ministry of State Security (MSS). Accordingly, the MSS ordered the aircraft to land at Hainan Island, but before it could do so all phones of PLA personnel posted on Spratly Islands were jammed and it was at this time, i.e. between 1:07 am and 1:21 am that the aircraft disappeared. This report maintains that the aircraft then headed Westwards in the IOR to Diego Garcia.

Credibility of Russia-China Angle

The report as discussed above has certain unimpeachable elements. First, it gives the name of former SEALs, who were found dead under suspicious circumstances. Second, it gives the name of the security firm that deployed them. Third, it is established that the said firm specializes in protection of nuclear and biological material during transport. Fourth, it gives the identity of the vessel, which transported ‘highly suspicious cargo’ from Seychelles to Malaysia. The ascribed reason that the former SEALs died because of overdose of heroine seems highly implausible because given the physical and mental training and job of Navy SEALs, they cannot be drug addicts.

The ultimate destination Diego Garcia is also implausible because an aircraft with 227 passengers (15 countries) and 12 crew members, dead or alive cannot be kept concealed to so many American military personnel posted at this secret base.

The unsuccessful attempt by China to direct the aircraft to Hainan Island, since it was carrying ‘dangerous cargo’ is likely as the Island is a major PLA base with large airfield. It is also a major nuclear submarine base. The theory of jamming of phones on Spratly Islands is also logically possible and acceptable, so as to prevent any alert to mainland by PLA personnel when the aircraft changed course.

Westward Theory: Many Loopholes

It is being bandied feverishly that the plane took a Westerly direction. The tweet by Strobe Talbot has only queered the pitch. In effect, the entire search operation has been confined to IOR. The disappearance/accident of aircraft in the IOR is very unlikely due to the dense radar and satellite coverage of the region. There is phenomenal amount of shipping activity in the IOR. In fact, amongst the oceans, it is only the Indian Ocean which is witness to intense strategic and economic activity. Apart from littoral countries, it must be factored that the US is a major player in the IOR, by virtue of its base in Diego Garcia.

The theory or the speculation that the aircraft took a northerly direction towards Kazakhstan is again most improbable as no pilot would cross Himalayas at low-altitudes due to unpredictable weather and wind shear. Moreover, the Af-Pak region is known to be covered by a very dense radar network. In Afghanistan, due to the presence of ISAF, the network is so dense that, euphemistically speaking, not even a fly can get through the airspace. To illustrate the contention, an Indian aircraft engaged in casualty evacuation from Tashkent was flying lower than the designated height over Afghanistan. A US F-16 aircraft scrambled to interrogate. Once explained that the reason for low-altitude was overload, the Indian aircraft was allowed to proceed.

Time Zone Factor

The Westerly direction theory or speculation seems relatively incredulous as the crew of the aircraft would have to add into the night, i.e. the hours of darkness. In the easterly direction, however, the aircraft would meet the ‘first light’ in a matter of few hours from the region where it changed course. After first light, a trained pilot can fly manually as low as 50 meters above the water level, thus avoiding any radar.

Also given the vastness of the Pacific Ocean, and relatively low radar network the possibility of the aircraft making 90° eastward course is highly possible.

Emergency Locator Transmitter

The most intriguing aspect of the entire saga is that the ‘emergency locator transmitter’ fitted externally to the aircraft has not triggered, which happens with absolute degree of certainty whenever an aircraft makes a ‘g’ impact on the ground or water.

Assessment

From the inputs as discussed, there are certain assessments to be made:

  • The aircraft was loaded with ‘dangerous cargo’, orchestrated by forces inimical to China or Russia, to be offloaded at Beijing.
  • The Chinese authorities were alerted by Russian Intelligence.
  • The plan once compromised, the pilots effected the alternate plan and took an easterly course in the Pacific.
  • The aircraft flew extremely low to avoid radar detection after first light.
  • The aircraft landed at some remote base, before which the passengers segment was possible depressurized by the pilots.
  • The passengers as a result of depressurization died.
  • All through this period, the pilots had put on their ‘independent’ oxygen masks.
  • Once the pilots were out, all emergency signaling units were deactivated manually and then the said cargo was removed and the aircraft was destroyed to the last detail.
  • The captain of the aircraft had created a simulator in his house, the data from which has been completely wiped out. Was he practicing for this eventuality?

Concluding Questions

The forgoing assessment emphasizes on the Eastern course possibility. Is this the reason the US has been on an overdrive to underscore the ‘Western course theory’? Was the tweet from Talbot, a deliberate diversionary tactic? Readers can now make their own assessment.

(RSN Singh is a former military intelligence officer who later served in the Research & Analysis Wing. The author of two books: Asian Strategic and Military Perspective and Military Factor in Pakistan, he is also a Guest Blogger with Canary Trap. The opinions expressed by the author and those providing comments are theirs alone, and do not reflect the opinions of Canary Trap or any employee thereof)[/sociallocker]