Intelligence reports in the US and UK are unequivocal as to the cause of the destruction of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 over the eastern Ukraine yesterday (Thursday) afternoon local time killing all 295 people on board.
A heavy vehicle mounted surface to air missile system locked onto the Boeing 777-200ER, tracked it, and then launched the missile that brought it down in pieces close to the Russian border.
While it has not been confirmed that the missile was launched by pro-Russia separatists, those forces are dominant in the area where this atrocity occurred. Earlier this week a Ukranian cargo plane and a fighter jet were shot down in the area.
The death toll included 27 Australian nationals according to authorities in the Netherlands, which lost 154 of its nationals in the shoot down. Foreign Affairs has not confirmed the exact number of Australian nationals killed, and there remains some uncertaintly as to just what the numbers and nationalities will be when the manifest is finalised.
MH17 had left Amsterdam for Kuala Lumpur yesterday (Thursday) European time. The video evidence suggests there was good visibility over the Donestsk area of the eastern Ukraine at the time it was struck by the missile.
The jet was at an altitude of 33,000 feet or 10,000 metres and 1000 feet or 300 metres above the ceiling of closed air space.
That supposedly ‘safe’ airspace, above 32,000 feet, has now been closed. Many airlines had stopped flying over the Ukraine months ago irrespective of the official status of air corridors that had remained open because of the obvious risks of flying over a war zone.
The issue as to just how often or how infrequently or not at all various airlines have engaged in Ukraine overflights remains as murky at this early stage as the other fundamental questions that remain unanswered over MH17.
What is clear is that for whatever reason an airliner flying over a war zone has been destroyed in flight and all 295 people on board died.
There are confirmed reports that both the flight data recorder and cockpit voice recorder carried by MH17, a Boeing 777-200ER, have been found. Reports that these vital black boxes have already been sent to Moscow to have the data retrieved are unconfirmed at this hour.
There is nothing technologically challenging about a surface to air (SAM) missile locking onto and destroying an airliner at 33,000 feet. That’s what they are designed to do, and have been for some time, including taking down supersonic targets and at altitudes higher than 60,000 feet. While there are different claims made about the 1960 shooting down of a U-2 spyplane over the USSR, it was at an extremely high altitude when it was brought down.
Given the deliberate and skilled steps that are required to launch a SAM, this incident is difficult to classify as anything but a premediated kill of a jet which even to civilian eyes in clear visibility would have looked like a passenger jet.
Qantas has confirmed that it has not flown that route across the Ukraine in recent months, putting it amongst all of the other airlines that promptly recognised the risks of such overflights as the separatist conflict became one in which aircraft were being shot down.
This report will be updated as additional factual elements emerge.