British Nuclear Submarine Joins Search for Missing Plane

Apr 02, 2014 5:37 pm ET

(Updates with China envoy’s comment in 14th paragraph. For more on Flight 370, see EXT3.)

April 2 (Bloomberg) -- A British nuclear submarine joined the hunt for the missing Malaysian plane in the southern Indian Ocean as the mystery entered its 26th day.

The HMS Tireless “has been tasked to assist in the humanitarian search mission for Flight MH370” and is in the area being searched, Sarah Corcoran, a spokeswoman for the British High Commission in Canberra, said by e-mail.

Ten planes and nine ships were deployed today to comb an area about 221,000 square kilometers off Perth, Australia’s Joint Agency Coordination Centre said in a statement. The submarine was accompanied by survey ship HMS Echo, Malaysia’s Acting Transport Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said in a Twitter posting today.

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak is scheduled to arrive in Western Australia later today. The cause of the disappearance of the Malaysian Airline System Bhd. jet might never be known, Malaysian police chief Khalid Abu Bakar said at a briefing in Kuala Lumpur, according to a recording provided by a member of his communications staff.

“The investigation may go on and on and on,” Khalid said. “At the end of the investigation, we may not even know what is the real cause.”

Police have interviewed more than 170 people, including relatives and acquaintances of the 227 passengers and 12 crew members of Flight 370, Khalid said.

Najib Visit

“The chances of finding debris are not getting any better,” Jason Middleton, head of the University of New South Wales’s School of Aviation, said from Sydney. “It comes back to the lack of flight data and any eyewitnesses.”

Najib plans to visit Base Pearce near Perth, the Australian air force facility that’s the hub of the search for the Boeing Co. 777-200ER that vanished March 8 with 239 passengers and crew on board.

Search crews are scouring the ocean 1,504 kilometers northwest of Perth even as sea fog, broken clouds and isolated thunderstorms reduced visibility. A lack of flight data keeps investigators from narrowing the search area.

The HMS Tireless, a Trafalgar-class attack submarine launched in 1984, has a top speed of 32 knots. Trafalgar-class submarines have been modified for other roles such as surveillance and reconnaissance, according to the British navy’s website.

Conflicting Statements

The HMS Echo, launched in 2002, can collect military hydrographic and oceanographic data and carries a detachment of marines, according to the website.

Najib has faced public scorn from China, whose nationals made up about two-thirds of the travelers on Beijing-bound Flight 370, over his government’s handling of the case. Senior Malaysian officials have issued conflicting statements about what is known about the plane and the state of the inquiry, contributing to the criticism abroad.

“We have nothing to hide,” Paul Low, a minister in the Prime Minister’s Department in charge of fighting graft, said yesterday in an interview in Singapore. “Why would we want to cover up and have an international inquiry at the same time?”

China’s ambassador to Malaysia, Huang Huikang, told reporters today in Kuala Lumpur that the country has never said it was angry over the current status of the investigation or expressed dissatisfaction on the progress of the search. Still, there are areas of improvement in handling “this unprecedented incident,” he said.

‘Rare Incident’

“We noticed the coordination between relevant departments within Malaysia is not too good, the information released wasn’t consistent,” Huang said. “This needs to be improved in the future. But honestly, in the face of this rare incident and major disaster, no one can do this perfectly.”

Investigators have relied on limited contact between Flight 370 and an Inmarsat Plc satellite to draw up a search area in seas known for four-meter swells and depths that range from 2,000 meters to 4,000 meters (2.5 miles).

Planes and ships from Australia, Malaysia, China, the U.S., South Korea, New Zealand and Japan are taking part in the hunt, which now marks the longest period in modern passenger-airline history between a disappearance and initial findings of debris.

The previous mark was set when Adam Air Flight 574 went missing off the coast of Indonesia’s South Sulawesi seven years ago. The Boeing 737-400, operated by PT Adam Skyconnection Airlines, lost contact with air traffic control Jan. 1, 2007. Wreckage wasn’t found until the 10th day of the search.

Australia’s Ocean Shield ship, fitted with equipment to detect the black box recorders, is heading to the zone. The recovery effort faces a narrowing window as batteries in the black box pingers that emit signals only last for about 30 days.

The vessel isn’t projected to reach the region until tomorrow, and even then the prospect of finding the recorders is a slim one because the gear towed by the Ocean Shield has a range of only about a mile.

--With assistance from Shamim Adam and Sharon Chen in Singapore, Edward Johnson in Sydney and Manirajan Ramasamy and Chong Pooi Koon in Kuala Lumpur.