WAS the Malaysian air force sleeping on the job? How could an unidentified aircraft fly through Malaysian air space without the air force sitting up and being on high alert? Why were no jets scrambled? How secure is our air space? Those are some of the questions many have been asking since Flight MH370 went missing. The March 8 flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing was flying over the South China Sea heading into Vietnam air space when someone deliberately switched off the transponder at 1.21am making it disappear from the air traffic control (ATC) radar screen.

The Boeing 777 passenger plane carrying 239 people including 12 crew then made a turnaround crossing back into Malaysian airspace. Unchallenged and unidentified – although it was picked up as a blip by the military’s primary radar at 2.15am (although not in real time) – it flew over Penang before disappearing towards the Indian Ocean. Aerospace Defence Consultant Ravi Madavaram insists the military did no wrong. “From my point of view, they didn’t make a mistake. They didn’t miss a military aircraft. They missed a commercial aircraft which is not their job anyway (to monitor).”

He stresses that the objectives of the military’s primary radar and commercial secondary radar are very different. The secondary radar, he says, is used by the air traffic control (ATC) to track commercial aircraft as much as possible especially during landing and takeoff, which are the critical stages of a flight. It requires fast response and communication is done via a transponder in the cockpit of the aircraft. The military, on the other hand, uses a primary radar as its purpose is to track which airplane is a friend or foe.  It does not need a transponder because typically an enemy aircraft will not respond. The primary radar hardware is automated and gives out blips every four to 12 seconds.

A military jet would give out a very small signal on the radar, says Ravi of Frost & Sullivan, while a commercial jet will give a big reading. “So I can understand if nobody gets excited over the MH370 passing because from the primary radar they can see that it’s too big to be a military aircraft and it looks like a commercial aircraft which is flying off route so they just ignore it.” If it is something small and moving fast, like a fighter jet, that is when the air force will take it seriously and be on the alert, he adds.

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