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Conflict Zones Update
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Historically rare instances of a missile damaging or destroying a commercial air transport aircraft have prompted the member states of the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) to tighten their bonds of mutual security and to strengthen protective measures. Technically, each case is an “unlawful act of interference with civil aviation” according to international conventions.
This article summarises a few recent advances and setbacks in efforts to protect normal civilian flight operations near or within airspace designated as a conflict zone (see the Definitions section). Intense scrutiny and concerns arise each time official investigations find that the event was not an accident, meaning that a deliberate shootdown or an non-intentional aeroplane downing occurred.
ICAO has been the catalyst for analysing and urging implementation of protective measures since 2014. The organisation periodically revises its consensus advice to member states, aircraft operators, civil and military air navigation service providers (ANSPs) and other stakeholders. ICAO primarily focuses on the subject of “risk assessments — from both deliberate acts and unintentional hazards — for civil aircraft operations over or near conflict zones” and considers states to be the ultimate decision makers about which risk-management and security practices to adopt.
Essentially, ICAO now says that the governments of member states “should notify their counterparts of threats and hazards in their sovereign and delegated airspace, and coordinate activities so as to minimise any such threats and hazards.”
Accumulated knowledge, experience and best practices have been distilled by ICAO in the non-restricted Risk Assessment Manual for Civil Aircraft Operations Over or Near Conflict Zones, Doc 10084, Second Edition, published in 2018. References and Further Reading in this article also contain other resources. Examples include state/local/regional programmes and some currently defined conflict zones around the world.
Doc 10084 says it “focuses primarily on the risk posed by long-range surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) as these are currently considered to pose the most significant risk to civil aircraft operating over or near conflict zones.
“However, some of the considerations and conclusions would apply also to air-to-air missiles launched from fighter aircraft. The manual does not cover the risk that arises at lower altitudes (including during take-off and landing phases) from shorter-range SAMs such as man-portable air defence systems (MANPADS), which has been the subject of other assessments.
“The decision as to whether a civil aircraft will be flown through airspace that could otherwise be considered unsafe relies on the various parties involved, i.e., the State that manages the airspace, aircraft operators, ANSPs, the State of the Operator, ICAO, regional civil aviation authorities, and other stakeholders.”
The following definitions were quoted or paraphrased from Doc 10084 and the ICAO website:
- Acts of unlawful interference — These are acts or attempted acts that jeopardize the safety of civil aviation. In the context of missile attacks on civilian aircraft in conflict zones, such acts include — but are not limited to — destruction of an aircraft in service; introduction on board an aircraft or at an airport of a weapon or hazardous device or material intended for criminal purposes; use of an aircraft in service for the purpose of causing death, serious bodily injury, or serious damage to property or the environment; and, communication of false information such as to jeopardize the safety of an aircraft in flight or on the ground, of passengers, crew, ground personnel or the general public, at an airport or on the premises of a civil aviation facility.
- Air-to-Air Missiles — Missiles fired at an aircraft from another aircraft.
- Conflict Zones — Airspace over areas where armed conflict is occurring or is likely to occur between militarized parties, and is also taken to include airspace over areas where such parties are in a heightened state of military alert or tension, which might endanger civil aircraft.
- Man-Portable Air Defence Systems (MANPADS) — Shoulder-launched surface-to-air missiles. They are capable of bringing down aircraft, but not of reaching cruising altitudes.
- Overflight/Overflying — Passing over terrestrial areas (land or sea) at cruising altitude.
- Surface-to-Air missile (SAM) — Any weapon that may be fired at an aircraft from the ground (including MANPADS), but in this context, is taken to mean advanced military equipment that is capable of attacking airborne targets at altitudes of at least 25,000 ft (7,600 m).
- Task Force on Risks to Civil Aviation Arising from Conflict Zones (TF RCZ) — The missile-downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 (MH17) on 17 July 2014, and ICAO’s initial high-level meeting on 29 July 2014, led the ICAO secretary general to establish this task force later that year.
2020 Airliner Crash Occurs in Conflict Zone
On 9 January 2020, ICAO issued the following statement: “Consistent with the provisions contained in Annex 13 to the Chicago Convention (Aircraft Accident and Incident Investigation), the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) has received official notification and a preliminary accident report from the Islamic Republic of Iran surrounding the loss of Ukraine International Airlines Flight PS-752 near Tehran.
“ICAO continues to call for diminished speculation on the possible causes of the accident until the Annex 13 investigation is permitted to be concluded and its official results are confirmed.”
ICAO’s Conflict Zone Efforts Since 2018
Doc 10084 says that lessons learned to date from initiatives in many countries have influenced new work on a specific set of future amendments to ICAO annexes, the doc series, manuals, etc.
One significant envisioned change addresses “the need for the operator to ensure that a flight will not be commenced unless it has been ascertained by every reasonable means available that the airspace containing the intended route from aerodrome of departure to aerodrome of arrival — including the intended take-off, destination and en-route alternate aerodrome(s) — can be safely used for the planned operation, and where conflict zones are overflown, to conduct a risk assessment and to take appropriate risk mitigation measures to ensure a safe and secure flight.” Another significant envisioned change addresses “coordination of activities potentially hazardous to civil aircraft; the need for the appropriate ATS [air traffic service] authority to ensure that a safety risk assessment of the airspace concerned is conducted as soon as practicable for activities potentially hazardous to civil aircraft, and that appropriate risk mitigation measures are implemented.”
A further envisioned change officially defines a conflict zone as a reportable hazard, thereby further formalising the requirements for notices to airmen (NOTAMs, see Definitions), details of NOTAM content and dissemination via related aeronautical information services.
Other examples of predicted changes include:
- Requiring appropriate government authorities to introduce procedures that appropriately share — with operators, ANSPs or other entities concerned — conflict region–relevant intelligence that would enhance security risk assessments;
- Emphasising conflict zone–related risks as part of the security component of integrated risk management (IRM), complementing the full scope of the safety management system’s different functional systems; and,
- Upgrading content — i.e., explaining the conflict zone-related issues for better coordination between military and civil aviation authorities — in ICAO documents and manuals pertaining to civil-military cooperation in air traffic management.
Current Conflict Zone Information Sources
- Conflict Zone Information Bulletin (CZIB) — The European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) compiles data developed primarily by European governments to issue timely insights on the EASA website.
- Conflict Zones Network of Focal Points (RCZ) — This European initiative combines shared information about conflict zones from several stakeholder groups and oversees the content of CZIBs.
- Notice to Airmen (NOTAM) — As of 2018, ICAO’s position is that as a matter of best practice, the presence of threats from a conflict zone — which is considered a reportable hazard for air navigation — [should include] information as specific as possible regarding the nature and extent of threats arising from the conflict and its consequences for civil aviation. Warnings about conflict zone risks and instructions on air space restrictions are contained in NOTAMs.
Discontinued Information Source
- Conflict Zone Information Repository (CZIR) — This interim website tool was launched by ICAO on 2 April 2015, to disseminate risk intelligence. By January 2017, survey data showed that voluntary participation in CZIR had declined significantly and that many stakeholders had chosen alternate proprietary systems of real-time sharing. In December 2017, ICAO decided to close the CZIR and a temporary derivative web-library to concentrate on other priorities.
Current ICAO information can be found in its website on a page entitled "Risks posed to civil aviation operations over or near conflict zones".
- Risk Assessment Manual for Civil Aircraft Operations Over or Near Conflict Zones, Doc 10084, Second Edition, International Civil Aviation Organisation, 2018.
- “Update on the ICAO Work Programme on Conflict Zones and Way Forward,” Kas E. Beumkes, ICAO AVSEC 2018 Global Aviation Security Symposium, Montréal, 26 November 2018.
- “Conflict Zones,” Operational Safety Risks Working Paper, 13th Air Navigation Conference Committee, 4 September 2018.
- Conflict Zones — Frequently Asked Questions, ICAO website, 4 September 2018.
- “Aviation Safety and Air Navigation Monitoring and Analysis — Conflict Zones,” ICAO Assembly, 39th Session Technical Commission, Agenda Item 33, 19 August 2016.
- Effective Use of Existing NOTAM System to Disseminate Information Related to Conflict Zones, presented by the ICAO Secretariat, 19 January 2015.
- ICAO Doc 9433, Manual Concerning Interception of Civil Aircraft
- ICAO Doc 9554, Manual Concerning Safety Measures Relating to Military Activities Potentially Hazardous to Civil Aircraft Operations
- ICAO Doc 9985, Air Traffic Management Security Manual
- ICAO Doc 10088, Manual on Civil/Military Cooperation in Air Traffic Management