Friday, April 04, 2014

Countdown for Malaysia Airlines Black Box Search Presents Difficult Question: WSJ

The Wall Street Journal
By  Rachel Pannett in Sydney and  Robb M. Stewart in Perth

April 4, 2014 8:14 a.m. ET

SYDNEY—With the black box from Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 due to fall silent any day, an already difficult search looks about to become vastly more so, presenting the eight governments involved with the thorny question of how long to continue it.

The all-out air-and-ship search for the last two weeks, since the focus shifted to the southern Indian Ocean, has been a race against time. Fueling it has been the intense hope of coming across a ping from the plane's black-box flight recorders, which would both help locate the plane as well as offer answers to one of the biggest mysteries in modern aviation.

The batteries of underwater locator beacons attached to the flight recorders are estimated to last about 30 days. Four weeks after the Beijing-bound plane is believed to have crashed into the ocean on March 8, as little as two days remain to find them.

In a last-ditch effort to locate the black boxes, the search shifted under water for the first time on Friday: Two naval vessels from Australia and the U.K. began probing the ocean depths. The Australian ship, Ocean Shield, is equipped with a U.S. device designed to detect signals from the flight recorders, thought to be sitting up to 2½ miles below the surface.

The decision to move the search under water followed urgings from Malaysian and Australian leaders to maintain the search at full intensity until all hope of locating the plane is lost. But if the weekend comes and goes without a breakthrough, some of the oxygen is likely to drain out of the multinational mission.

For three countries any kind of pullback on the search may be difficult politically and diplomatically: China, which had 153 citizens on board the plane, Malaysia, which is legally bound to investigate the disappearance as the home country of the airline and Australia, which has been leading the search since it shifted to its maritime backyard. That is likely to keep the search going.

China's Premier Li Keqiang, speaking with Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott by phone on April 1, said that "although search efforts face increasing complications and difficulties, they should not be relaxed, much less abandoned," according to a brief report by China's official Xinhua news agency.

Mr. Abbott—due to visit China next week, where he hopes to advance long-stalled free-trade talks—has pledged to keep increasing the intensity of the search indefinitely. "If this mystery is solvable, we'll solve it," he said on March 31.

Australian Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston said on Friday that the hunt for debris on the ocean surface would continue for "a good deal more time."

Australia's navy has a track record of deep-sea recovery, including retrieving a body from a downed Black Hawk helicopter in about 3,000 meters of water off the island nation of Fiji in 2007, almost five months after it crashed.

For now, other countries involved in the search, including Japan, South Korea and New Zealand, have pledged ongoing support, but a protracted search with no hope of a ping from the black box will inevitably run into a different cost calculus for governments with a less direct link to the disaster.

"The cost involved could make it quite difficult to continue being part of the search, certainly for countries whose people feel they have no direct involvement," said Alan Campbell, a research fellow at Curtin University in Perth who specializes in psychology and conflict resolution.

No country will want to be seen as bailing out first, said Peter Jennings, who as executive director of defense think tank the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, gives security advice to the government. "They will want a pre-agreed halt for all," he said.

Some defense experts say an intensive air search—the bill for which is already likely to have run into the tens of millions of dollars for each of the eight nations involved—should reasonably be called off within two weeks. Up to a dozen military aircraft scouring a vast section of the southern Indian Ocean since the search shifted to the region two weeks ago have so far found nothing but random flotsam.

Without prospects for a black-box ping, the best searchers can hope for is locating individual pieces of wreckage—in a sea of floating garbage. Chances of spotting a field of debris on the ocean surface that would help searchers backtrack to any crash site are remote, experts say.

Locating floating items such as life vests would still give searchers a better steer on the likely crash site than current information—which is based on analysis of radar data, likely aircraft performance and satellite communications by a team of international crash investigators.

"We have not searched everywhere where the aircraft might have gone," said Air Marshal Houston, who is coordinating the multinational effort.

Mr. Jennings said a natural downgrade of the search is likely to come as fierce southern weather systems bring increasingly strong winds and waves. "If nothing else that's going to put a pause in what they can do for quite a number of months."

Recovery efforts may have to be suspended until the spring since deploying even remote-controlled underwater vessels and attempting to bring objects onboard may become impossible, said Charitha Pattiaratchi, a professor of coastal oceanography at the University of Western Australia.

"Ultimately it comes down to the law of diminishing returns and the economic and political resolve to continue," said Bill Fry, a safety adviser and Boeing 737 captain at Express Freighters Australia. "Given the high profile of this event, I would expect that significant resources will be made available over an extended period."

"Countries do find it useful to say they're a part of an international effort," said Samina Yasmeen, professor of political science and international relations at The University of Western Australia. But, she said, "At some stage you have to draw the line."

—Ross Kelly in Perth contributed to this article.