Finding a 'Playmaker' in the Ongoing Hunt for AirAsia


JANUARY 12, 2015

The hunt for remaining parts of the missing AirAsia aircraft continues without any specific date and time limit as President Joko Widodo has instructed the agencies involved to keep searching.

Indonesia AirAsia flight QZ8501 was a scheduled international passenger flight — operated by a local affiliate of the Malaysia-based AirAsia Group — traveling from the city of Surabaya to Singapore.

For reasons that still remain unclear some three weeks after the fateful tragedy on Dec. 28, the Airbus A320-216 crashed into the Karimata Strait an hour into its route, killing all 155 passengers and seven crew members on board.

Known to 18th-century sailors as the Caramata Passage, the strait joins the South China Sea with the Java Sea and separates Sumatra from Kalimantan.

The AirAsia crash is the second-deadliest in Indonesian territory, behind Garuda Indonesia Flight 152, which crashed into a mountain en route from Jakarta to Medan, North Sumatra, in 1997. All 234 people on board were killed.

Again, bad weather was considered the primary culprit of the disaster.

In just less than  a week after Flight QZ8501 plunged into the Karimata Strait, hundreds of personnel from Indonesia’s National Search and Rescue Agency (Basarnas) and other related agencies — both civilian and  military — were deployed in what looked to be a massive and unprecedented search and rescue mission ever done by the government.

Basarnas is the primary national agency mandated to handle disasters across the archipelago, be it aviation or natural.

In the case of the AirAsia crash, it seemed evident that the agency was unable to conduct an effective and well-managed search and rescue mission of this scope all on its own.

Thus, the deployment of other national — and international — organizations was not only necessary to quickly successfully and search for the missing plane, it was also imperative given the location of the crash and the degree of difficulty of the grueling task.

Basarnas carried out its AirAsia search and rescue mission with the aid of the expertise and technology at their disposal. Scores of dedicated specialists in the area of search and rescue were also dispatched to the scene.

When disasters such as that of AirAsia occur, seconds can mean the difference between life and death.

As hopes for survivors quickly diminished, the joint search and rescue teams, under the command of Basarnas chief Bambang Soelistyo, were able to pinpoint the location of the crash site.

Further measures then saw proactive involvement of more agencies and the use of advanced technology to help push the mission forward.

The agencies involved in the massive undertaking are the main elements of Basarnas itself, including the Indonesian Navy, Air Force, Army, the National Police, the country’s Meteorology and Geophysics Agency (BMG), telecommunication agencies, state-owned energy firm Pertamina,  France-based oil company Total, and even the nation’s fishermen.

These agencies, however, cannot act unilaterally or based on their respective disaster policies.

The AirAsia search and rescue operation should be seen as an integrated mission, where the elements involved should frame their roles in a manner that reflects the primary objective.

President Joko Widodo and Indonesian Military (TNI) chief Gen. Moeldoko have expressed their appreciation to all parties involved for their relentless hard work under inclement weather conditions.

In a tragedy that has struck grief and shock into the hearts of an entire nation, one single misstep — due to lack of coordination or mismanagement — will not only result in failure of finding the truth behind the crash, but also cast doubt on the agencies’ capabilities.

It is against such a backdrop that the search and rescue mission should see the strategic importance of a pivotal role often referred to as a “playmaker.”

The term here is narrowly interpreted and describes the responsibility of an individual who “offensively” crafts out policies that place participants of a collaborative effort in strategically placed positions in order to execute their mission effectively and in an organized manner.

Although this can be any competent figure within the operation, the title of playmaker  belongs to a leader who is capable of making quick and impactful decisions under massive pressure.

It is not yet clear whether Basarnas’s Soelistyo deserves to fall under the category of a playmaker.

But when he declared, at the beginning of the search and rescue mission, that he will be responsible for and in charge of every aspect of the massive undertaking, he can, theoretically, be given the title.

So far, the entire nation — and the world — has seen the former air marshal lead press briefings in an orderly and succinct fashion, set the tempo of operations and seamlessly transition the operation from one phase to another.

In sports, a game would require the playmaker to strategize both offensive and defensive moves. In the ongoing search for AirAsia Flight QZ8501, such an interpretation of the moniker can also be relevant to Soelistyo’s position.

Here, he works not only to provide guidance on policies involved in all levels of the operation, but he can also be seen as  the “tactical leader,” crafting maneuvers in such a proficient manner that his team can truly succeed.

When Soelistyo instructed divers to head back into the churning waters of the Karimata Strait, despite constant delays and constraints caused by its strong currents, he seemingly signaled the start of a new phase in the mission and prioritized the search for the aircraft’s black box.

Soelistyo’s role as playmaker also became evident when he instructed one of Indonesia’s naval ships to sail through the night to reach the location where the aircraft’s tail section was found by unmanned, underwater sensors.

The move lead to the successful recovery of the tail on Saturday.

Soelistyo was quoted by reporters as saying that he was happy with the progress of the mission so far .

His leadership in the search of Flight QZ8501, particularly in finding the black box, was seemingly undermined and nearly damaged by the alleged intervention of TNI chief Gen. Moledoko.

Moeldoko was reported as claiming that he will take over the reins of the operation and subsequently instructed all parties involved to dedicate their skills and efforts on recovering the black box by utilizing any means necessary.

It is not at all clear what Moeldoko is looking to prove by hijacking control of the entire search and rescue mission, particularly when it has already made significant progress under the direct command of the Basarnas chief.

Should Moeldoko continue to intervene, parties involved in the search for more victims and the missing black box will only become rattled by the confusion of which line of command to follow.

Unfortunately, in this case Moeldoko is not and cannot be regarded as the designated playmaker as his role in the search and rescue mission only recently came into play and seems to focus on one thing: finding the black box, when the bodies of more than 100 victims remain missing.

The general has not been a strategic part of the decision-making process as Soelistiyo has from the very start. The latter may have communicated with the former to fill him in on the progress, but that certainly does not place Moeldoko in charge.

Soeltistyo’s role as  a playmaker was also instrumental in bringing in and managing the quick involvement of foreign countries in the operation.

In short, the AirAsia search and rescue mission is unlikely to produce the intended results, at least for now, without the involvement of a dedicated playmaker to  organize every aspect of the undertaking.

Whether or not the public and media sees Soelistyo as that playmaker, the Basarnas chief certainly deserves credit for the quick response of his team and the significant process the unprecedented mission has made so far.

Bantarto Bandoro is a senior lecturer for the School of Defense Strategy at the Indonesian Defense University in Sentul, Bogor