The biggest news to hit news stands yesterday was co-pilot of Ethiopian Airlines ET702, hijacked his own plane and landed in Geneva Switzerland. The flight departed Addis Ababa for Rome when the co-pilot locked himself him while the pilot went to the restroom. The 767 landed at Geneva at 0502 GMT or 0602 AM local time where the co-pilot gave himself up to the police.
What was not reported in most mainstream news was the fact that the Swiss Air Force did not respond to the impending hijack situation (Report here), which was at that time heading straight for Switzerland. Swiss Air Force spokesperson Juerg Nussbaum. explained that“You have a budget and you have to prioritize,”. The Swiss will only scramble their fighters only during office hours. The Swiss were given plenty of time to react when co-pilot entered hijack transponder code ‘7500’ over Italy at around 0330 GMT. That would have made many air traffic controllers in Europe jump out of their seats when their radar sounds off an alarm, with ”Hijack” flashing on their screens. The Italians scrambled their Eurofighter Typhoons before the French’s Mirage 2000s joined in later whilst closer to Geneva (bordering France). The Swiss did not deploy a single aircraft throughout the drama.
A more peaceful Europe in recent years have seen many countries slashing their defense budgets. Netherlands are left virtually without an armoured force, and UK recently was caught with their pants downs when a Russian cruiser parked herself off Scotland, waiting for a day for the Royal Navy to arrive. 63% of Swiss public recently opposed the purchase of new Saab Gripen aircraft, and a vote will take place in May for the final decision.
While skies are getting peaceful, air forces around the world still have to respond to a more unpredictable unconventional threats like terrorism. Unlike conventional warfare where is there a period of tension and build-up, one have to respond at a flick of a switch in cases that this. Switzerland have their reliable friendly neighbors to thank, with sustainable land mass around key cities to buy time for. Asia has it fair share of incidents like this. In Jan 2008, an unidentified Cessna was detected by RSAF radar units, and was heading for Singapore. His flight plan was unapproved and his intent was questionable. Air defense mechanisms kicked in and two F-16D+ from 145 Squadron was scrambled at 6.42pm (outside normal day flying hours) to intercept the aircraft. The Cessna landed at Changi a little after 8pm.
Unlike the Ethiopian 767 who was already intercepted by Italian jets, the Cessna was unopposed when he departed Koh Samui on his track down to Singapore until he was intercepted by RSAF’s F-16s in South China Sea.
Many question SAF’s high defense budget, getting the biggest pie from the national budget and the highest in the region, and it is likely that the pattern will remain so in this year’s budget to be announced this Friday. The two cases above are excellent examples of why the SAF must remain to be eternal vigilant and ready in this unpredictable defense landscape. Singapore have virtually no strategic depth and too much at stake, Oil Refinery, CBD, Changi Airport etc. A single unconventional attack will throw the economy a few years backwards.
We have no one but ourselves to rely, to defend and respond to a threat like this. Not protecting ourselves from a threat that we can see, but from one that we can’t.
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