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Paul Buchanan: Failures Of Communication

Failures Of Communication

Paul G. Buchanan

The short-lived security alert occasioned by a despondent pilot of a light aircraft making threats to crash into the Auckland Skytower provided New Zealand authorities with an excellent live action drill in emergency preparedness and threat assessment. The Skytower was evacuated with little complication and no injuries, and besides some frazzled nerves and a contrite man wading ashore from the wreckage of his ditched plane to face criminal charges, no one was the worse for wear.

Even so, a number of questions have been raised by the event, not all of which have been answered satisfactorily. Let’s start with the easy part of the discussion.

Several commentators have opined that this event shows how foolish it was to decommission the tactical air wing of the NZRAF, including its trainers. In their view tactical strike aircraft could have intercepted and shot down the single engine Cessna, and the absence of an interceptor capability will only encourage more threats (or strikes) against New Zealand landmarks by persons of various and mixed motivations.

This opinion is wrong. Even if New Zealand had tactical fighter aircraft based in Whenuopai, and they were scrambled upon notice of the intruder Cessna, there would be no time for them to intercept the plane before it crashed into the Skytower. Besides the fact that it would take less than five minutes for a light plane to travel from Ardmore airport to the Skytower if the pilot was purposeful in his suicidal intent (which leaves no time for tactical aircraft to be alerted and deployed even if fully fuelled and armed on a stand-by basis), the Cessna was travelling too low and too slow to be effectively engaged by tactical combat aircraft. Travelling at less than 150 knots, the Cessna was close to the stalling speed of all jet interceptors, which means that it would be impossible for tactical fighters to line up a clean close shot at the target.

This would force them to try to engage the Cessna from above and away. Doing so with machine gun fire would rain hot lead onto the streets of Auckland; using a heat- seeking missile would be equally problematic due to the presence of many other thermal signatures in a congested urban environment. Given the slow speed of the Cessna, that would likely entail the air-to air engagement becoming a collateral air to ground exercise. Even if fire could be delivered accurately on target, the broken up and possibly fiery Cessna would disperse and fall into that urban environment (defined here as the area within two nautical miles of the Skytower mast). Only if the Cessna was above 500 meters and flying some distance (over water, preferably) from the city could it have been targeted effectively from the air. In this instance that is not what the pilot was doing. A pilot with bad intent or simply wary would understand the underlying logic of this equation.

Some have argued that rotary platforms could have intercepted the Cessna. There is merit to the idea that an attack helicopter could have done the job, although there again the prospect of downing the plane would require careful consideration (as would any attempt to bring it down using ground fire) Instead, the Eagle Police chopper shadowed the Cessna, and no attempt was made (even if considered) to put snipers on Eagle or on other tall structures. That would have been impractical in the extreme due to the “ground effect” mentioned earlier, which would have serious political repercussions. More to the point, it is not a contingency that specialised police detachments train for in New Zealand, and so they are reluctant to risk doing it.

In any event, the Armed Offenders Squad was not called into action and since there is no tactical air wing there was no alternative option to use force to end the incident. As for the Police counter-terror squad, it is an analytic rather than an operational unit that assesses threats rather than counters them. Thus, the counter-terror squad was not involved, nor should they have been. As for the failure to see the incident coming due to faulty intelligence, the point is moot. Short of a warning by the pilot or someone close to him who knew his intentions, there was no way to get prior notice of the event because he acted impulsively. There was no intelligence failure.

But there are other areas of concern. The Cessna flew around for more than an hour—and may even have landed and refuelled--before being spotted. Lack of communication between various levels of authority prevented effective administration of the emergency event. The reason for this appears to be rooted in fundamental flaws in the nation’s command, control and communication systems, specifically communication between different security agencies and whoever are the national security command authorities.

The first time the Cessna was spotted was by air traffic control at Auckland airport, when it meandered across the Mangere flight paths. Until it did so it went undetected. From then the picture gets darker. The Civil Aviation Authority and the Police apparently have no way to integrate, much less coordinate their communications systems so that in this instance the Police could talk to the pilot directly. This is important because the Civil Aviation Authority has no personnel professionally competent in dealing with suicidal pilots, but the police do have personnel trained in dealing with suicidal people. Moreover, establishing direct contact with the source of a potential terrorist threat rather than having information relayed to them by air traffic control would have better served the police for counter-measure planning. Having air traffic control relay information about an agitated pilot in the middle of their other business is quite different than hearing from him directly.

It does not appear that many other security agencies were alerted to the threat, which is puzzling because a worse case scenario would require civil defence operations that would likely exceed the capabilities of the on-ground Auckland police and emergency personnel. Unless other agencies have played things very close to the vest in public, there are no reports of emergency mobilisation response teams being alerted or activated during the incident.

It is worrisome that the Auckland police communications centre apparently does not have the ability to integrate its communications channels and radio frequencies with those of civilian aviation, or commercial aviation for that matter. This is both easy to accomplish (almost any radio scanner will do) and is usually lesson one in national security contingency planning. One would think that the police in New Zealand’s largest city, in which a majority of commercial and private aviation takes place, would have the ability to monitor and communicate directly with aviation frequencies. If they can, then something else interfered with their ability to do so in this instance.

The problems do not stop there.

When asked the following day if she was aware of the potential terrorist threat to a New Zealand landmark, the Prime Minister stated that she had no knowledge of the event until the press mentioned it. The Diplomatic Protection Service, her bodyguards, apparently were notified but decided not to inform the Prime Minister. Perhaps it was the excitement of election night, but one would have thought that regardless of occasion an incident such as this—in which someone flying an aircraft threatens to crash it into the ninth tallest structure in the southern hemisphere, in the middle of New Zealand’s major city, with potentially catastrophic results—would have merited a brief mention to the head of the country’s security forces. That the police, her bodyguards, or any other security agencies choose not to do so is of concern. If there is a channel of communication that funnels all security information to her bodyguards without parallel lines of communication, and if it is the bodyguards who make a threat assessment and determine whether to inform her or not of potential threats, then the problem is grave. In a phrase, the DPS becomes a praetorian guard around the Prime Minister, which augers poorly for all concerned.

Take one example. Assuming the improbable, if there was a chance to shoot down the plane from the ground or air as a last resort, who would give that order?—assuming national security authorities were informed in a timely fashion about the nature of the threat. A police sergeant on the beat? A district commander? The Minister of Defence? The Chief of the Armed Forces? Michael Cullen? Winston Peters? As it stands, it appears that there is no clearly established chain of command, lines of authority or channels of communication in New Zealand’s air defence system (if there is one), and perhaps in its security apparatus as a whole. After all, this is a country where foreign governments electronically eavesdrop on international communications from New Zealand soil without sharing information with the national authorities, and where the head of the SIS can withhold classified intelligence information from the Prime Minister and Parliament (his ostensible overseers). Now it seems that even basic operational management—the three C's of command, control and communications (C3)—are conspicuous by their absence, at least when it comes to assessing and countering airborne terrorist threats.

As things turned out, all ended well. The pilot was upset about the break-up of his marriage, not a member of al-Qaeda. He was flying a light aircraft, not a commercial airliner, so at worst he would have dented the Skytower rather than demolished it (although the possible harm to innocent people in the Skytower and adjoining streets could have been significant). The evacuation went relatively smoothly, and the police “wait and see” (or perhaps resigned to the inevitable) approach eventually brought the incident to a peaceful conclusion without fatalities. There is merit in that.

However, questions have to be raised as to the preparedness of New Zealand’s security forces for a threat of this kind. After 9/11 one would have thought that would be of utmost priority for those charged with the nation’s security. Apparently, on an election night four years after the fact, it was not.

Beyond active defences such as increased security around airports, deployment of fighter jets or attack helicopters and closer scrutiny of civil aviation licenses, a passive defence approach might work better in a political environment such as Aotearoa. Tall platform laser light disorientation systems (based upon the technology used in music light shows and military targeting devices) may be one such option. Triggered upon intrusion into airspace to within one or more nautical miles of a sensor point (say, the Skytower mast), focused and random targeted laser beam systems have day or night capability to disrupt evil-minded aviators, or at least the emotionally despondent who can fly on their own. The cross-section of laser beams will blind the pilot and obscure his path to the target. The technology is wide-spread, commercially available and could be coordinated from a command centre either close to or far from the actual theatre of operations. The potential of such a system is not as far-fetched as it may seem at first glance, and would be less expensive and morally problematic to operate than airborne interceptors.

In the end, there is much to be learned from this incident. The C3 issue needs to be addressed as a priority, and consideration of both active and passive counter-measures is worth further discussion. In the meantime, though, it looks like we will have to cross our fingers and pray the next time someone decides to buzz a major landmark in this land of the long white cloud.


Paul G. Buchanan is Director of the Working Group on Alternative Security Perspectives at the University of Auckland. His latest book, With Distance Comes Perspective: Essays on Politics, Security and International Affairs (Digital Publishing Group) is being launched on September 27 in the Fale Pacifika at the University of Auckland.


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