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Conflict Zone Risks
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Armed conflicts, both declared and undeclared, exist in many areas of the world. The situation in these conflict zones can change rapidly with both escalation and de-escalation occurring with little or no warning. Whilst a conflict will almost certainly pose a risk to aircraft operating within the affected area, aircraft in proximity to, or overflying, the conflict zone may also be subject to an increased risk.
Under the terms of the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) Chicago Convention, States are responsible for their airspace and have a responsibility to restrict traffic or close all or part of their airspace should the risk (threat) become unacceptable. The military intelligence community assesses threat in terms of capability and intent. Capability encompasses weapon systems which, in the context of posing a threat to an overflying civilian aircraft, might include surface-to-air-missile (SAM) systems, man portable air defense systems (MANPADS) and anti-aircraft artillery (AAA). Intent is an assessment of the likelihood that a weapon system would be used against a specific target or group of targets. However, capability can be underestimated, intent can be misinterpreted and, in the fog of war, targeting mistakes can occur and non-combatants can be misidentified and inadvertently fired upon.
During the summer of 2014, Ukraine airspace was partially closed due to an on-going conflict. The initial threat assessment that the rebel forces were equipped with MANPADS, with a maximum altitude range of 4500 metres, resulted in closure of airspace below FL260 to all but State Aircraft. This restriction was later expanded to include all airspace below FL320 to provide an additional buffer zone between State and civil aircraft. At no point did the authority consider that there was a threat to civil aircraft flying above FL260 nor did they feel that there were grounds for full closure of their airspace in the conflict region.
From the perspective of most operators, the open airspace was safe airspace and flight operations above the restricted zone were carried out by numerous air carriers from many different countries. On 17 July 2014, Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 was shot down while in the cruise above the restricted airspace at FL330. The weapon system involved was not one of those that had been identified in the initial capability assessment. Full airspace closure occurred after the incident.
Four days after the crash, the United Nations Security Council unanimously adopted Resolution 2166, in which the Security Council condemned the attack and expressed its support for an independent international investigation into the crash. The investigation into the crash of flight MH17 was conducted by the Dutch Safety Board in accordance with the international regulations that apply to independent accident investigation (ICAO Annex 13). The States involved in the investigation included the Netherlands, Ukraine, Malaysia, the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia and the Russian Federation. The full text of the Dutch Safety Board final report can be accessed via the link under "Further Reading".
The primary conclusions of the investigation are as follows:
- Cause of Crash
- A 9N314M warhead carried on a 9M38 series missile as installed on the "Buk" SAM detonated outside and above the left side of the cockpit of flight MY17. The impact killed the three persons in the cockpit and caused structural damage to the forward part of the aeroplane leading to an in-flight break-up.
- Route of Flight
- The aviation parties involved did not adequately recognize the risks of the armed conflict in the eastern part of Ukraine to overflying civil aviation.
- Flying Over Conflict Zones
- The current system of responsibilities for safeguarding civil aviation does not provide sufficient means to adequately assess the risks associated with flying over conflict areas.
- Risk assessment for civil aviation using the airspace over conflict areas should not only consider actual threats but should also include risks of which the intention or capability is uncertain.
The report contains numerous supporting conclusions for each of the primary conclusions.
The Dutch Safety Board made a total of 11 recommendations grouped in the following three categories:
- Airspace Management in Conflict Zones
- Risk Assessment
- Operator Accountability
Each of the recommendations was specifically directed to one or more of ICAO, ICAO member States, International Air Transport Association (IATA), Operators or State of Operators and all strive to reduce risk by:
- recommending that the Chicago convention be amended to better define State responsibilities for risk assessment, information sharing and airspace closure
- suggesting that Operators are made cognizant of potential conflict zone airspace risks through State of Operator legislation requiring them to undertake their own risk assessment
- improving passenger awareness by requiring Operators to be publicly accountable for their route choices
The full text of the recommendations can be found in Chapter 11 of the Dutch Safety Board report Crash of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 Hrabove, Ukraine, 17 July 2014
Immediately following the downing of MH17, ICAO, IATA, the Airports Council International (ACI) and the Civil Air Navigation Services Organisation (CANSO) met to urgently evaluate existing safety protocols. One of their first actions was to issue a joint statement which read in part: "While aviation is the safest form of transport the MH17 incident has raised troubling concerns with respect to civilian aircraft operating to, from and over conflict zones. We have met at ICAO with collective resolve to urgently review the issues and potential responses to be pursued. As a first step, states have been reminded by ICAO of their responsibilities to address any potential risks to civil aviation in their airspace." At the same meeting, the Task Force on Risks to Civil Aviation arising from Conflict Zones (TF RCZ) was established to address the civil aviation and national security roles and procedures for mitigating risks to civilian airspace in conflict areas, particularly how information can be effectively collected and disseminated by fail-safe channels.
According to the ICAO website, the first pilot project agreed by TF RCZ explored how the Notice to Airmen (NOTAM) system already in place between States and operators could be better used to share urgent and critical conflict zone risk information. The second project called for a new centralized system to be established for the prompt sharing of conflict zone risk information. Those initiatives resulted in the Conflict Zone Information Repository, the stated purpose of which was to to "... compile in a centralized and recognized location certain information promulgated by States regarding risks to civil aircraft arising from conflict zones". Further enhancement and expansion of this resource repository was anticipated, but was discontinued in late 2017. ICAO survey data showed that voluntary participation in CZIR had declined significantly and that many stakeholders had chosen alternate proprietary systems of real-time information sharing.
Accidents and Incidents
B772, en-route, near Hrabove Eastern Ukraine, 2014 On 17 July 2014, ATC lost contact with a Malaysian Airlines Boeing 777-200 en route at FL330 and wreckage of the aircraft was subsequently found. An Investigation by the Dutch Transport Safety Board concluded that the aircraft had been brought down by an anti-aircraft missile fired from an area where an armed insurgency was in progress. It was also concluded that Ukraine already had sufficient reason to close the airspace involved as a precaution before the investigated event occurred and that none of the parties involved had recognised the risk posed to overflying civil aircraft by the armed conflict.
Dutch Safety Board