TSG IntelBrief: The Extraordinary Challenges of Search at Sea
March 24, 2014

THE EXTRAORDINARY CHALLENGES OF SEARCH AT SEA

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Bottom Line Up Front     

• While there have been tremendous advances in satellite coverage and aviation resources, searching any large body of water for people or debris is very much as it’s always been: human eyes straining to find a needle in a moving haystack

• More than any other endeavor, search and rescue (SAR) and recovery operations at sea remind us of some of the very real limitations in our abilities to use technology to make the planet effectively smaller

• Tragedies such as Malaysia Air flight 370 generate immense search operations that showcase the best in international cooperation but remind us just how big our oceans really are.

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While there remains a significant absence of verifiable facts in the case of missing Malaysian Airlines Flight 370, one truth has been stubborn: it remains immensely difficult to search at sea. For populations more accustomed to instantaneous search engine outcomes than to SAR results dependent on visually scanning a monotonous shifting horizon for people or debris, it is understandable to be frustrated by the seemingly slow pace of the massive search operation in the south Indian Ocean. For the loved ones of the 239 missing people on board MH370, it must be agony. To that end, it might help to examine why, in 2014, searches at sea remain a challenge with infinite variables.

The expression “like finding a needle in a haystack” shouldn’t be used to describe SAR and recovery at sea. A more accurate expression would be like finding a drifting needle in a chaotic, color-changing, perception-shifting, motion-sickness-inducing haystack. Not that catchy an expression but unfortunately an accurate one. It’s not just that the search areas are vast, it’s that they’re moving in many directions with currents and waves; it’s not just that the object is tiny compared to the search area, it’s that it’s tiny and moving and likely underwater or certainly awash, just below the surface, with waves rushing over it, making spotting it from the air or the surface very challenging; and it’s not just that the distances from land are measured in hundreds or thousands of kilometers, it’s that the cruising time for ships to arrive on station may take a week or more while most planes can’t remain on station more than a few hours given fuel limitations. Weather is another major obstacle, with clouds and rain limiting visibility and sunshine creating glare.

To conduct SAR at sea is to fully know the uncomfortable degree that chance still plays in our affairs. A random wave might obscure the object when the eyes pass over it; sun glare off the water may blind momentarily; a look two degrees to the left when the object is most visible may cause the moment to pass. Standing on the flying bridge of a ship with binoculars, a lookout scans an assigned sector looking for contrast and anything other than water. Proper scanning is more than staring. In fact, staring is counter-productive. The lookout should move his or her eyes up and down an imaginary grid, pausing on fixation points for two seconds or so, so the mind has time to assess what the eye is capturing. It’s exhausting work both physically and mentally, with the added weight of life-and-death circumstances and the need for closure wearing down SAR personnel even more.

In the information age, we tend to overestimate how much technology can help. We believe our smartphones in our cities and towns are capable of finding a 40-meter piece of aircraft in a search area the size of Texas, 2,500 kilometers from land. But all technology can do in this type of search is provide more platforms to get human eyes on target, with the aforementioned difficulties still in play and the added challenges of moving quickly over a moving, endless surface. Turboprop planes such as the US Navy P-3 are our best aviation tool for visual search, but their numbers are relatively few. Jets, such as the new P-8 Poseidon, might arrive on scene faster but they travel too quickly for detailed visual scanning and are more effective at dropping sonar buoys for anti-submarine missions. Ship-borne radar doesn’t work with such a low-profile signature, assuming wreckage on the surface (which is increasingly unlikely as more time passes since MH370’s disappearance). Sonar is useful but is limited in range and speed of platform. And as we’re seeing with MH370, satellite coverage of open ocean has its own challenges, from the cost to reposition an asset (most satellites aren’t aimed at specific areas of coverage, not the nothingness of vast oceans) to the difficulty of determining from 38,000 miles up the difference between an awash plane segment and seaborne debris or even light refracting off waves.

Adding to the frustration is the misconception of global satellite coverage as akin to Google Earth, with almost every location geo-tagged and photographed. First, Google uses low flying planes and not satellites to film hard-to-reach locations. Second, they don’t cover the oceans that, well, since there is usually nothing there (and if there were it wouldn’t be for long, because in a drifting ocean there is no there there). Military and intelligence satellites have incredible capabilities but, again, they’re not aimed at empty water, and they face the same challenges—looking for contrast in a dynamic environment.

With immense effort, and, yes, luck, the SAR operation in the southern Indian Ocean will find something tangible to help investigators determine the cause of the incident and perhaps assuage the grief of loved ones and family members. But it is a vast and shifting haystack in which we search.

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