Investigators walk near a section of the tail of AirAsia Flight QZ8501 passenger plane in Kumai Port, near Pangkalan Bun, Central Kalimantan Jan. 11, 2015. (Reuters Photo//Darren Whiteside)

In Search for AirAsia, a Multinational Battle Against Nature and the Java Sea


JANUARY 13, 2015

An Airbus investigator walks near part of the tail of the Indonesia AirAsia Flight QZ8501 passenger plane in Kumai Port, near Pangkalan Bun, Central Kalimantan on Jan. 12, 2015. (Reuters Photo/Darren Whiteside)

Reports of the ill-fated Indonesia AirAsia Flight QZ8501 on Dec. 28 and the subsequent search for victims, the aircraft’s black boxes and answers to what caused it to crash into the Java Sea continue to dominate the headlines of national and international media.

An updated account by the National Search and Rescue Agency (Basarnas) revealed that the aircraft’s tail was successfully brought to the surface by flotation devices on Saturday.

And a little over a day later, the black boxes were finally found, triggering a nationwide sigh of relief.

The Java Sea has become the primary “eye witness” to the  tireless efforts of the nation’s search and recovery personnel, as well as those from the military and other related agencies.

State of the art search and recovery equipment have played a pivotal role in pinpointing the crash site and recovering victims’ bodies.

Basarnas quickly sprang into action when Flight QZ8501 was first declared missing at 6:55 that fateful Sunday.

But inclement weather and given the wide and uncooperative nature of the Java Sea, it soon became clear that the search and rescue agency would need substantial aid in finding the plane.

Indonesia welcomed multiple offers for assistance and the operation became an international effort, earning the government praise for its quick and transparent actions in handling the tragedy.

More than five countries contributed their skills and resources to the search and recovery operation.

They are : Singapore, Malaysia, Australia, South Korea, the United States, China, Japan, Russia, Britain and France.

And more than two weeks into the grueling search, we continue to witness the “offensive” approach taken by participating search and recovery teams in scouring the turbulent waters of the Java Sea.

Not only that: At least 30 ships, 15 aircraft and seven helicopters have taken part in the massive undertaking.

Perhaps most interesting to observe is not just the involvement of foreign countries — with their unmatched and sophisticated search and recovery equipment that have been instrumental in the search operation — but also the active participation of four global powers who play a major role in shaping the world: the United States, China, Russia and Japan.

Literature on international relations and strategic studies have described these as a group of countries whose military, economic and political influence have shaped the past, present and will continue to impact future global issues.

Reminiscent of past battles

It may not be coincidence that the AirAsia search operation has also seen the presence of countries who were once involved in the Battle of Java Sea, namely Japan, Britain and Australia.

A defining battle in the Pacific campaign of World War II, the struggle saw the naval forces of Britain, the United States, Australia and the Netherlands square off against those of Japan.

The latter, an aggressive military power at the time bent on seizing control of Asia, had successfully outwitted and confused allied forces at every turn with a series of devastating victories. The Battle of Java was no different.

Fought on Feb. 27, 1942, the massive naval struggle — which killed nearly 2,400 soldiers — resulted in a Japanese victory that allowed the Empire of the Sun to take control of Java.

Search and recovery personnel from these countries are now in the same location where their predecessors fought head-to-head to maintain naval superiority.

Though what is currently happening in the Java Sea is not a repetition of the past conflict, it can be seen as a “battle” between the multinational search and recovery

officers and the heavy tide of the Java Sea in the ongoing search for the AirAsia aircraft.

The rescue operation for Flight QZ8501 saw the constant “strategic” maneuvers of military equipment operated by participating countries.

They did not join the search mission with a hidden agenda of gaining regional influence, nor were they coerced into contributing their skills.

These countries have banded together because they believed their collaborative effort in interdependently utilizing the search and recovery equipment each had to offer would result in more efficiency than if these high-tech machines are used independently.

The high degree of difficulty search and recovery personnel face in the undertaking has pushed their skills — and their military hardware — to their limits.

Heavy equipment

To aid Basarnas in the search, the Singapore Air Force deployed C-130 Hercules aircraft, a Formidable-class frigate; a Victory-class corvette; a tank landing ship; and a vessel for submarine support and rescue.

Meanwhile, the Malaysian government set up a rescue coordination center in the West Java city of Subang and deployed three navy vessels and three aircraft, including a C-130 Hercules.

The United States Navy also joined the search and recovery effort, sending the warships USS Sampson and USS Fort Worth. Australia deployed a P-3 Orion aircraft.

India put three navy ships and one P-8 Poseidon maritime surveillance aircraft on standby for assistance, with one ship located in the Bay of Bengal and the other in the Andaman Sea.

Russia dispatched over 70 rescuers, Beriev Be-200 amphibious planes and the Folkon remote-controlled deepwater vehicle to help in the mission.

What we currently see in the Java Sea is not merely a naked demonstration by foreign countries of their respective search and recovery equipment’s capabilities — particularly those from the military.

Nor is it a competition to show off the extensive experience of their rescuers. What we ascertain, to some extent, is the sense that these countries will continue to play strategic and important roles in the region.

The international effort also revealed that these major powers have the ability to set aside whatever differences or hostilities they may harbor for each other and work together, despite the sense of urgency of the situation.

During the joint operation, these nations did not see each other as a potential threat.

This extraordinary coming together of global forces not always at ease with each other could perhaps serve as a reminder for peace in the future. The past two weeks also helped to build a deeper sense of moral responsibility on the part of the participating countries as their respective search and recovery teams give their all in the search for QZ8501.

The Battle of Java Sea remains in the history books and will be remembered for many years to come.

But hopefully, that horrific day that saw nations in a bloody struggle for domination, will be superseded by the memory of the collaborative undertaking carried out by the same forces.

The search for AirAsia Flight QZ8501 serves as a reminder to the international community that together, nations can accomplish more than they ever could apart and in conflict with one another.

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