The uncertainties surrounding Malaysia Airlines Flight 370’s disappearance are enormous, but naval strategists have been unraveling lost-at-sea mysteries as far back as the U-boat battles of World War II, and perhaps most dramatically in 1968, when an intelligence team found the submarine Scorpion, which sank in the North Atlantic after losing contact under equally baffling circumstances.
A United States Navy spokeswoman said that its involvement in the search so far has been in response to requests by the Malaysian government. The destroyer Kidd is patrolling west of the Strait of Malacca, and a P-8 search plane arrived in the area on Friday, but no submarines were involved, she said.
Yet it is the Office of Naval Intelligence — and particularly the submarine division — that has refined some of the most creative techniques for finding sunken ships, spent warheads and downed pilots in vast, uncharted waters.
Those techniques are now integral to forecasting by the intelligence community, economic prognosticators and the armed services, and will come into play if the Navy is asked to take a central role in the search for Flight 370.
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“The same approach we used with Scorpion could be applied in this case and should be,” John P. Craven, the former Navy scientist credited with finding the Scorpion, said in a telephone interview. “But you need to begin with the right people.”
The approach is a kind of crowdsourcing, but not one in which volunteers pored over satellite images, like they have in search of Flight 370. That effort is akin to good Samaritans combing a forest for a lost child without knowing for certain that the child is there. Instead, forecasters draw on expertise from diverse but relevant areas — in the case of finding a submarine, say, submarine command, ocean salvage, and oceanography experts, as well as physicists and engineers. Each would make an educated guess as to where the ship is, based on different scenarios: the sub was attacked; a torpedo activated onboard; a battery exploded. This is how Dr. Craven located the Scorpion.
“I knew these guys and I gave probability scores to each scenario they came up with,” Dr. Craven said. The men bet bottles of Chivas Regal to keep matters interesting, and after some statistical analysis, Dr. Craven zeroed in on a point about 400 miles from the Azores, near the Sargasso Sea, according to a detailed account in “Blind Man’s Bluff,” by Christopher Drew and Sherry Sontag. The sub was found about 200 yards away.
The idea behind such pooled forecasting is that each person offers a small bit of insight and that those “weak signals from diverse experts accumulate quickly,” said Philip E. Tetlock, a professor of management at the Wharton School who works with the Office of the director of National Intelligence on the Good Judgment Project, which tests forecasts of geopolitical events.
In the case of the downed plane, forecasters might bring in climate and ocean scientists, engineers who worked on building the plane’s components and commercial pilots familiar with the route. Those specialists would then make judgments based on the scenarios already discussed as possible causes for the disappearance of Flight 370: terrorism, pilot error, sudden depressurization and engine failure.
The experts are sometimes grouped in teams, whose prognostications are then weighted according to factors, such as how up-to-date their information is and how solid their previous track records are, said Lyle H. Ungar, a professor in the department of computer and information science at the University of Pennsylvania, who works on the forecasts.
“We do a lot of this pooled forecasting and it works pretty well, sometimes spookily well,” Dr. Tetlock said.
Sound-detection technology in and around the Indian Ocean may aid this forecasting — or render it moot, other experts said. The Chinese may already have sound-detection equipment in waters nearby. And any submarine in those waters — Chinese, American or otherwise — would be equipped with sound surveillance systems that could pick up the signature of a fallen plane, even many miles off, said Alfred Scott McLaren, a former submarine commander who has mapped Arctic waters, including the Siberian Shelf.
Dr. McLaren said that the area where the Malaysian plane seems to have gone down lies amid “a cluster of potential global rivals” and that the sound of the airliner’s fall — if it hit the water — might already have been picked up by submarines watching each other. “In that case the information would be classified,” he said, “and we wouldn’t know anything until it was released through back channels somehow.”
Walter Munk, an oceanographer at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, said that with international cooperation the technology exists to track almost any airliner that falls into open ocean, but the system needs to be in place before an incident. The Atlantic and Pacific are somewhat covered, but places like the Andaman Sea and the Indian Ocean are much less so. “I think you could put detection systems in about twelve places in the world, chosen carefully,” Dr. Munk said, “and then we would be much better prepared to find the next downed airplane that seemed to disappear.”