Was billion-dollar radar turned off?

AUSTRALIA'S multi-billion-dollar over-the-horizon radar system may not have been operating when Malaysian Airline flight MH370 went missing with 239 people on board.

Former Member for Fairfax Alex Somlyay has questioned why the Jindalee Operational Radar Network (JORN) failed to detect the Boeing 777 commercial passenger jet.

Mr Somlyay was public accounts committee chairman in 1996-97 when it examined the cost and capabilities of the system which has cost at least $1.8 billion.

He said there was information, on the public record, that said the system could track a small Cessna taking off from East Timor 3000km away.

"Advances in the past 10 years have expanded JORN's capacity 10-fold since then,'' Mr Somlyay said.

"I remember being at Alice Springs (at the tracking station) watching Qantas flights approach Darwin from the north.

"Given we've spent billions on over-the-horizon radar, why didn't it pick up MH370?

"My question: Is the thing worth the money given it can't pick up a 777 commercial passenger jet?"

The expensive hi-tech system's capabilities came under fire three years ago for its failure to detect asylum seeker boats entering Australian waters.

In the previous two years more than 200 boats landed without detection.

The explanation at the time was that the system was looking only at vessels the size of the 57m Armidale class patrol boat.

This was despite repeated political assurances by both Labor and Coalition governments that the system would detect people smuggler boats and craft being used for illegal fishing.

JORN consists of land-based radars in Western Australia, Alice Springs and Queensland and can monitor air and sea movements across 37,000sq km.

Despite the understanding given to politicians, including former defence minister Robert Hill who in 2003 claimed our northern coast line would be "under constant wide-area surveillance for sea and air approaches", that is not the case.

The Air Force has a publicly available fact sheet on JORN.

"JORN does not operate on a 24-hour basis except during military contingencies," it says.

"Defence's peacetime use of JORN focuses on those objects that the system has been designed to detect, thus ensuring efficient use of resources."

Big passenger planes, illegal fishing craft and people smugglers are clearly outside that remit.

The Department of Defence yesterday refused to provide the technical or other reasons that prevented the JORN system picking up Malaysian Airlines flight MH370.

"Defence will not comment on the operational capability of surveillance systems,'' it said in a statement.

Australia has already spent $60 million in the search for the aircraft in the Indian Ocean off and below Western Australia.