The downing of Malaysian Air flight 17 continues to dominate headlines, as reporters (and the U.S. government) shift their attention back to Russia and Russia’s proxy militias in the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic. It would be a mistake to limit concern to overflights of eastern Ukraine, or to focus only upon the question of culpability in this instance. Rather, it’s time to look at the downing of the Malaysian passenger jet as a possible window into the future.
Several thousand surface-to-air missiles went missing in Libya in part because the White House chose to lead from behind and so did not work to secure Libya’s substantial arms caches. While airlines scramble to avoid Ukrainian airspace, they still fly over other contested regions. Less than two weeks ago, I flew on an American carrier from Washington to Dubai: we traversed Turkey and avoided Syria, but then appeared to fly over portions of Iraq which were newly seized by the Islamic State.
Terrorists with weaponry that can blow planes out of the sky may increasingly become the new normal. The question for policymakers is what to do about it. Only Israel equips its civilian jets with measures to counter missile threats. In 2002, terrorists attacked an Israeli charter flight leaving Mombasa. The missiles failed to hit their target, in part because of Israeli countermeasures.
The U.S. government is infamous for always defending against the last terrorist attack. TSA agents continue to pat down grandmothers in order to confiscate hidden water bottles. That may be all well and good, but increasingly it provides security theater rather than real security. If the growing threat is from below, the question the White House and airline industry should answer is what steps are they taking to defeat a surface-to-air missile aimed at a civilian jetliner, or whether they will simply wait to act until terrorists down an American-flagged aircraft.