Kuala Lumpur: Malaysia believes data from US spy satellites monitored in Australia could help find missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 but the information is being withheld.
The country's Defence Minister Hishammuddin Hussein has specifically asked the US to share information obtained from the Pine Gap base near Alice Springs, according to the government-controlled New Straits Times newspaper.
Authorities in Kuala Lumpur believe that finding the plane now depends on the willingness of a number of countries to share potentially sensitive radar and satellite data.
They want to use the information to calibrate with data they have already obtained to narrow the search areas from a massive 2.4 million square nautical miles stretching from Central Asia to the vast expanses of the Indian Ocean.
Thailand’s military said on Tuesday that its radar detected a plane that may have been MH370 just minutes after the plane’s communications went down, and that it didn’t share the information with Malaysia earlier because it wasn’t specifically asked for it.
Indonesia's Rear Marshall Hadi Tjahjanto said his country had nothing to add to the information gathered by radar facilities across the world, because Indonesia’s facilities had not caught sight of the ill-fated flight. “The radar we have which face Malaysia directly are in Sabang in Aceh and in Medan, but the radar data provided no information on MH370.”
For three days, Mr Hishammuddin has reiterated publicly that Malaysia had asked countries to provide sensitive data from their satellites, specifically naming the US, France and China.
“Our focus is on four tasks: gathering information from satellite surveillance, analysis of surveillance radar data, increasing air and surface assets and increasing the number of technical and subject matter experts,” Mr Hishammuddin said on Tuesday night.
“On satellite surveillance, I cannot disclose who has what capability but I can confirm we have contacted every relevant country that has access to satellite data,” he said.
Mr Hishammuddin concedes information obtained from military-use satellites is regarded as privileged on national security grounds and usually not shared among nations.
But he said Malaysia had “put our search effort above our national security” by disclosing raw military data which had allowed experts to identify areas where the plane could have flown after it lost communications and turned back from its scheduled flight path from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing on March 8.
Asked if countries had been forthcoming with information, Mr Hishammuddin replied: “the only one [country] that is basically out in the open is Malaysia.”
After speaking by telephone with US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel on Tuesday, Mr Hishammuddin said the US has “possibly the best ability” to help locate the plane. US ships and planes are involved in a 25-country search.
Mr Hishammuddin confirmed he also asked Mr Hagel about US support from US satellite and radar systems. Mr Hagel has not commented directly on Malaysia’s request for access to US satellite data.
The New Straits Times newspaper on Wednesday led its coverage of the missing plane with a story referring to Pine Gap as a “super-secret” installation in the barren Australian heartland that could solve the puzzle of the mystery disappearance.
The newspaper quoted Mr Hishammuddin as saying Malaysia would “appreciate” if the US could provide investigators with data from its facilities in Australia.
“Although he did not mention the two facilities by name, the New Straits Times believes he was alluding to the Pine Gap and Jindalee facilities,” the newspaper said.
The Jindalee Operational Radar Network, known as JORN, is Australia’s powerful military radar system that has an official range of 3000 kilometres but experts say it’s over-the-horizon-radar system can detect movements across 37,000 square kilometres.
Australia’s Foreign Minister Julie Bishop told Parliament on Monday that all of Australia’s defence intelligence relating to the plane “has been and will continue to be passed on to Malaysian authorities”. Australia releases only limited information about the JORN system which has enormous antenna installations spaced across the outback.
John Blaxland of the Australian National University’s strategic and defence studies centre said the JORN system would probably have to have been programmed to look for MH370 in advance.
But he said experts are certain to be scrutinising data from the system that is seen as a key part of Australia’s defence.
“I hope they find something but I think there would be a remote chance they would pick up the plane,” he said.
Under a so-called “Five Eyes” program, the intelligence services of the US, Britain, Australia, New Zealand and Canada share intelligence information among themselves. There is no history of a general sharing of intelligence data with Malaysia or China whose nationals account for most of the passengers on the missing plane. Usually information is shared only on a bilateral basis for specific reasons.
Chinese officials in Kuala Lumpur have told Chinese journalists that “nothing is being hidden” by Beijing in the search for the plane.
MH370 was confirmed as emitting a signal at 8.11 am on March 8 by satellite data provided by London-based Inmarsat, more than seven hours after it turned back from its scheduled flight path while over the South China Sea.
Australia is leading a search for the plane in 600,000 square kilometres of the southern Indian Ocean, an area the size of France. “A needle in a haystack remains a good analogy,” said John Young of the Australian Maritime Safety Authority which is co-ordinating the search in the Indian Ocean.
Rear Marshall Hadi said the Indonesian navy had been searching in the Malacca Strait since the day after the plane went missing. Now that the search area had been expanded into the Indian Ocean, he said the airforce was willing to join the search, but it had not yet been given instructions about the specific area to look in.
“We have our airforce liaison officer now in Malaysia to help to coordinate us … on the search,” Rear Marshall Hadi said. “With the recent information now that search area is expanded to the Indian Ocean we are waiting to hear the search coverage in Indian Ocean that Malaysia would like us to help searching.
“We are still waiting for information from Malaysia … However we have already started searching on areas in the western part of Sumatra. It coincides with annual training we are doing now in Medan for a week. We are using six F16 aircrafts in the training so we are doing training and searching at the same time.”