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atrocities

Jul 15, 2017

MH17 three years on festers as an evil that benefited no one

All we can say of MH17 is that evil was done three years ago, to no apparent purpose at all

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One of the dispersed MH17 crash sites

Where is the MH17 atrocity three years on from the destruction of the Malaysian Airlines 777-200ER with 298 people on board by a Russian made BUK missile while it flew over disputed territory above eastern Ukraine on its way from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur?

As reported in the Crikey Insider yesterday, it has for the general public largely been a cynical political exercise aimed at leveraging the terrible loss of life into an anti-Russia narrative with little reference to the facts as determined in 2015 by a Dutch Safety board investigation.

Not that Russian involvement in the act that launched the BUK missile that destroyed MH17, on July 17, 2014, four months after the unrelated disappearance of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, is in any serious doubt.

The Dutch set up two inquiries into the loss of MH17. They were the technical crash inquiry that was conducted under ICAO or International Civil Aviation Organisation rules and reported its findings in 2015, and the criminal investigation, which continues and seeks to identify and prosecute the perpetrators.

As reported in Crikey earlier, this criminal probe is unlikely to get anywhere, apart from generating much huffing and puffing and posturing by politicians and ideologues. The ICAO compliant crash probe has however left a number of very important insights into his tragedy that ought to have been front of mind had the media not fallen for a misleading presentation of its findings and, like governments that would have been well aware of those findings, not chosen to sing along to the Russians- are-evil song sheet sans the issues of potential airline culpability in putting all on board MH17 in harm’s way.

Those findings were dealt with in this post in 2015 in Plane Talking.

The strangest finding was that of the Russian NOTAM or notice to airmen that was issued the day before the shoot down closing its airspace immediately adjacent to the Ukraine airspace in question for traffic below 53,000 feet. (NOTAMS are posted in imperial measure.)

Some BUK anti-aircraft missiles are capable of sprinting to their targets at more than three times speed of sound and making kills at more than 70,000 feet. That’s an altitude where targets could include high capability spy-planes. If this Russian altitude edict reflected an intent to kill something at a great height, the question has to be about ‘what’ and ‘whose’. It’s also a speculative question that didn’t get any hour of fame in the immediate post MH17 media coverage, unless we draw a very long bow to include US reports that America had surveillance over the disputed area, and would therefore hold critical data (but which it has never publicly released) covering the interception of what turned out to be a civilian airliner.

Malaysian authorities refused to co-operate with the DSB inquiry as to what they knew about that NOTAM.

However Ukraine, which clearly did not have control over the skies across which it was selling overflight rights to airlines including Malaysia Airlines had also issued a NOTAM which was acknowledged by the carrier and prohibited use of the air corridor in Ukraine in question below 32,000 feet.

This meant that carriers like Malaysia Airlines were cleared to fly over a war zone in which 16 aircraft had been destroyed by missiles or other hostilities in the month preceding MH17 being shot down at more than 32,000 feet, but when or if their flight continued out of east Ukraine into Russian controlled airspace, they might not in places be cleared to fly at less than 53,000 feet.

This was an altitude that no airliner in scheduled service could in any event, sustain while cruising, even if it was briefly technically attainable when near to empty. (Some corporate jets can cruise for a while at more than 50,000 feet.)

It should also be kept in mind that on the day Ukraine shifted MH17 and other traffic deeper into hostile skies to avoid thunderstorms. But they were skies that Ukraine clearly hadn’t been able to control for months.

We also know that responsible airlines with a strong and proactive safety culture do flight plans that take into account the reduced altitude capabilities of twin engined airlines that lose power in one engine, an event which although infrequent would have seen a Boeing 7777-200ER descend through 32,000 feet and establish itself at a new lower cruising altitude.

In the event of a cabin depressurization any jet airliner would be taken under standard operating procedures to an altitude of less than 15,000 feet and preferably around 7000 feet to prevent death or serious injury from a lack of oxygen. Neither scenario appears to have been considered as unacceptably risky by the airlines that continued to fly over disputed parts of Ukraine.

There are a number of unresolved issues arising from this and other parts of the DSB report into the physical cause of the shoot down. A reasonable interpretation of the air traffic advisory situation would be that Russia was telling airlines not to even think about flying into its adjacent airspace if crossing that part of eastern Ukraine on July 17, 2014.

That interpretation could be built on by further assuming that it was a team of operatives that were specifically tasked with using a high performance BUK anti-aircraft missile that locked onto a civilian jet by accident and destroyed it.

Like the unrelated disappearance of MH370 earlier in 2014, building scenarios based on layers of assumptions, is fraught with peril. We don’t know what happened to MH370, despite some very interesting clues, and we don’t know with any certainty why a missile was launched against MH17, even though we know the terrible consequences.

If we feel compelled to compare the two disasters what they have in common is that they brought no obvious benefit to any party. No one benefited from the disappearance of MH370. The destruction of MH17 didn’t serve any political cause for Russia, Ukraine or specifically, the pro-Russia separatists in Ukraine. It did destroy a large part of the hundreds of millions of dollars Ukraine gets from selling overflight permissions and their management by its air traffic control system to airlines yet that seems trivial in terms of the bigger Ukraine-Russia situation. MH17 didn’t change the situation in east Ukraine.

Even three years on, nothing we know about the brutal and terrible shooting down of MH17 makes any sense. All we can say of MH17 is that evil was done, to no apparent purpose at all.

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23 comments

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23 thoughts on “MH17 three years on festers as an evil that benefited no one

  1. Puff, the Magic Dragon.

    And did anyone tell the passengers that they would be flying in airspace over a war-zone? If I had been told that, no way would I have boarded that plane. What about our right to know, before we become targets?

    1. Dan Dair

      PtMD,
      Aircraft overfly ‘conflict-zones’ of varying proportions ‘all of the time’.
      This is why the NOTAMs are important.
      Aircraft have been overflying Pakistan & Afghanistan for example & of course until recently the parts of the Middle East controlled by ISIS/IS/Daesh.?

      The issue isn’t so much about war/conflict-zones as it is about the actual threat-level to overflying aircraft.
      Quite clearly, that whole process went horribly wrong for MH17.

  2. Dan Dair

    I find this review a little simplistic.

    Russia issued the NOTAM but gave no explanation of why it was issuing that notice up to the border of Ukraine airspace.?
    It gave no specific reason of what was different which would make Ukraine to change it’s overflight policy & since the loss occurred so soon afterwards, there was very little time for Ukraine or any airlines (such as Lufthansa, from the almost adjacent Germany) to make their own investigations as to what had changed in Russian airspace & whether it was directly relevant to aircraft safety, or whether it was a political ploy to try to soften-up Ukraines attitudes to Russia & the Russian-separatists, by removing the incomes from overflight fees.?

    It is true that Ukraine airspace had seen a number of aircraft shot-down, but is not the case that Ukraine ‘did not have control over the skies’ in he ‘traditional’ sense. All of the downed aircraft in that zone were Ukraine military aircraft, either helicopters, ground-attack or transport aircraft. All of the shoot-downs were relatively close to the ground & AFAIK were all accomplished with machine guns or hand-held anti-aircraft weapons.
    The Russian separatists had no aircraft of air-support at all, in that region.

    It would behove Russia to admit to putting BUK’s into the conflict zone to take away Ukraines complete air superiority in that region, in order to explain why they closed-off their lower airspace. But this would involve admitting openly that the were supporting the Russian separatist movement in Eastern Ukraine, which did not do either at the time, or subsequently.

    I completely accept Bens points about overflying at FL320 being irrelevant. Flying at around FL70 would make aircraft potentially vulnerable to the already-known, hand-held anti-aircraft weapons in that area.
    I have much more sympathy for MAS than I do for Lufthansa (who overflew the same area only an hour before & could just as easily have been the victim of this atrocity), but I can neither understand, nor condone their refusal to co-operate with the Dutch enquiry.?

    I also agree that the actual shooting-down of 9M-MRD was probably an unintentional action. IMO it is most likely that the weapon was launched at a much lower-flying aircraft & missed it, simply because it’s not designed to intercept low-flying aircraft.?

    1. Mick Gilbert

      I also agree that the actual shooting-down of 9M-MRD was probably an unintentional action. IMO it is most likely that the weapon was launched at a much lower-flying aircraft & missed it, simply because it’s not designed to intercept low-flying aircraft.?

      That was most assuredly not the case, Dan. The 9M38(M1) missile is a semi-active radar homer; its target must be illuminated and designated by the ground-based launch or command vehicle radar. If the missile misses its intended (designated) target it cannot then spear off after another unintended target. There is little doubt that the Russians hit what they aimed at.

      1. Tango

        It needs to be kept in mind that the whole BUK system (if I remember right) was not there.

        What was there was the launcher.

        Per past wipes out with the Israeli’s, they realized they had a useless piece of equipment without the radar and combat director unit (probably CUB)

        so the launcher had a degraded capability to shoot on its own.

        I suspect this was the core of what happened, they saw something, they fired without a clue as to what they were shooting at.

        No less criminal, stupidity of what was going on.

        1. Mick Gilbert

          Tango, as I have explained at reasonable detail in my post of July 16, 2017 at 11:12 am, the Buk Transporter, Erector, Launcher and Radar (TELAR) unit that fired the missile that shot down MH17 didn’t require “a radar and combat director unit”. The TELAR was designed as an independent acquisition and fire control unit and there is no degradation in its ability to acquire, designate and engage targets when operating one out.

  3. Mick Gilbert

    If I might take the military rather than the aviation perspective on this one, Article 48 of the Protocols Additional to the Geneva Conventions, to which both Russia and the Ukraine are ratified signatories, states that:

    In order to ensure respect for and protection of the civilian population and civilian objects, the Parties to the conflict shall at all times distinguish between the civilian population and combatants and between civilian objects and military objectives and accordingly shall direct their operations only against military objectives.

    Regardless of what warnings might be issued it is incumbent upon the person pulling the trigger to ensure that what they have in their sights is a military target. So, did the Russians comply with or even attempt to comply with this most basic obligation upon a combatant?

    No, they did not. Not only did they fail to identify their target they knowingly deployed a weapon system that was incapable of identifying its target. A well known shortcoming of the Fire Dome radar on the BUK transporter/erector/launcher and radar (TELAR) vehicles is that it lacks both transponder interrogation and non-cooperative target recognition (NCTR) capabilities (NCTR is a system that can discriminate between target types even if there is no “cooperative” transponder response); in short, the TELAR cannot discriminate between military and civilian airplanes because it has no capability to read civilian S-band transponder transmissions. For the fire control operator in the TELAR everything in range would have appeared on their radar display as a target.

    You can slice and dice this whatever which way but you cannot ignore the principal cause of that disaster; in clear contravention of the rules of armed conflict the Russians fired blindly into a known civilian airway against a target that could have been identified as a civilian flight on a smart-phone with a free app. It was a callous and knowing disregard for the safety of civilians.

    1. Dan Dair

      Mick,
      Whilst I agree in principle with almost everything you said in both postings, AFAIK there was nothing from the Dutch investigation which conclusively identified the ‘trigger-finger’ as that of a member of the Russian military.?

      There was a lot of ‘talk’ at the time describing the necessity of a ‘control-van’ to operate with the BUK launcher, in order for the missile to function in the manner it’s supposed to.
      AFAIK, the lack of a ‘control-van’ would make the possibility of an accidental shoot-down more probable & reduce the probability that the Russian military had a direct involvement in the incident, albeit that the separatists must have got the launcher from somewhere.?

      IMO the Russians deliberately put at least one BUK launcher into the hands of poorly or completely untrained militia men & gave no warning to the outside world of their actions.
      The Russians are definitely culpable for that,
      though I still wouldn’t be sure that their actual intention was to do more than just put the BUKs into that zone, to make it impossible for airlines to continue to overfly Ukraine airspace.?

      1. Mick Gilbert

        Dan,

        By design, there is no requirement for a “control vehicle” to command/control the launch of a Buk from a TELAR. The Buk (in the case of MH17, what NATO would refer to as a SA-11 Gadfly) is a development of the 2K12 Kub (NATO reference SA-6 Gainful) missile system.

        The first operational combat deployment of the Kub was during the 1973 Yom Kippur Arab-Israeli war where it initially proved itself to be devastating. The Israelis lost a lot of Skyhawks and Phantoms to SA-6s in the early days of the war until they firstly reconfigured their radar warning receivers to detect the G/H band Straight Flush radar used by SA-6 and then figured out a weakness of the system. The SA-6 was deployed as a battery comprised of two or three tracked GM-578 Transporter, Erector, Launcher (TEL) vehicles each with three missiles and one tracked GM-578 carrying the Straight Flush engagement radar. The weakness in the system was that despite a battery having two or three launchers and anything up to nine missiles available, the unit could only engage one target at a time because the radar could only designate one target at a time. So, once a battery had a missile in the air it could not engage other targets which left it quite exposed.

        The designers of the Buk went to school on that experience and came up with the TELAR, a Transporter, Erector, Launcher with its own engagement radar. When the Buk is deployed as a battery, unlike the earlier Kub, there is no requirement to deploy a target acquisition radar vehicle; the battery consists of two TELAR with one TEL carrying reloads and each TELAR can operate independently.

        The Buk is not an arcade game; learning how to deploy it, identify targets, designate them and fire the missiles is not something that can be taught quickly to people with no experience with complex weapons systems. You’re quite correct in that the Dutch Safety Board did not identify the “trigger man” in their October 2015 final report. However, since then the criminal investigation carried out by the Dutch-led Joint Investigation Team and a number of other independent lines of inquiry have identified that the TELAR came from the Russian 53rd Anti-Aircraft Rocket Brigade garrisoned in Kursk.

        As to intent, I’m not sure about plans to deny the airspace to civilian air traffic but that may have been the goal. I think that they were simply looking to shoot down Ukrainian military targets like the Antonov An-26 that had been shot down a few days before MH17; a Ukrainian An-26 was meant to be flying a platoon of paratroopers into the combat area on the day that MH17 was shot down. Evidence gathered by the JIT indicates that the rebel troops that arrived at the crash site were expecting to see wreckage from a military airplane.

        1. Dan Dair

          Whilst I reserve my judgement on a couple of points………
          I (as usual) bow to your superior judgement.!!!

    2. comet

      A simple cellular telephone running the free app Flight Radar 24 would have given the fire control operator all the information he needed about which civilian airliners were in the area.

      I think it’s a weak excuse that the old BUK missile system they were using couldn’t identify one aircraft type from another.

      1. Randall

        Thank you for some much needed common sense. Russia recklessly supported violent separatists by supplying them high tech weaponry. Like most disasters, there wasn’t just one cause but Russia’s was the most egregious by far and is only compounded by their ridiculous denials

      2. Dan Dair

        Comet,
        Please don’t think for a moment that I am in any way an apologist for either Russia or the pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine.?

        The shooting-down of 9M-MRD was a callous & pointless action, which as Ben correctly identifies here, has benefited no-one involved in this localised conflict.?

        My comments here have been an attempt to put the things we know, into a slightly different context from that which Ben placed them.?

        I don’t believe that it was a Russian hand on the trigger.
        I don’t believe that Russia intended for a civilian airliner to be shot down.
        That said,
        I do believe that the Russians deliberately placed that (& possibly other) BUK’s into that conflict-zone.
        I do believe that they put operational BUK’s into the hands of poorly or totally untrained militia fighters.

        I don’t believe this outcome was what the Russians wanted, because it makes them look very, very bad indeed & they could manage without that publicity.
        But the fact that it was the Russians that put all these ‘ducks-in-line’ to create the situation must be laid at their feet. They are ultimately responsible for what they allowed or encouraged to happen on their doorstep, even if (as I believe) what happened was not what they had intended.?

        1. Dan Dair

          Incidentally, do you really think that some ‘yahoo’ with a (newly-acquired) big-gun, would actually think about logging on the FR24 before they shot something down, ‘just-to-check’.?

          The USA probably has spycam footage of the idiot running around, waving his hands in the air & shouting ‘I’ve hit it, I’ve hit it’, in Russian, of course.?

    3. Tango

      Yep, but as we have seen, the Russian no longer honor treaties and its all meaningless noise when the party singing could care less about legality.

      Like the Ship limitation prior to WWII, most cheated.

      No enforcement and its nothing more than a sick joke.

  4. Ben Sandilands

    This post was about Malaysia Airlines ignorance or potential negligence in accepting that flight over a war zone where aircraft were being shot down at a rate of about one every two days was safe enough for its passengers.

    It was also about the unwillingness of government to deal with the Malaysia Airlines decisions, and concentrate on a futile attack on the Russians.

    Now we have comments about the Russian actions that ignore the ongoing slaughter of hundreds of civilians in the middle east by western forces ostensibly liberating them from the likes of ISIS. Does anyone in the room seriously think that those on our side who blow up shopping centres and wedding parties and even hospitals will be identified and somehow brought to justice before a court in a foreign country in the manner of Russian missile launcher personnel being hung after being tried in the Netherlands.

    This is about airlines that fail to value the safety of their passengers and fly into war zones. Making it about the consequences of wars in which civilians die is something far more difficult to discuss in any fair manner.

    1. Dan Dair

      Ben,
      I know I’ve raised this before……
      but whilst I agree with you that MAS continued to fly in that area when it was generally unsafe to do so,
      they were ‘unfortunate’ to be the airline randomly ‘caught-out’ by the actions of the ‘trigger-man’ with the BUK.

      You been keen to pillory MAS & yet left all of the other airlines who overflew the same area on the same morning 9M-MRD was shot out of the sky, completely out of the ‘blame-game’.?
      Lufthansa of Germany are based around 2500km / 1500 miles from the crash-site & are separated from Ukraine by only one other country, Poland.
      If any airline should have known better, or should have had the wisdom of local knowledge or local contacts to find out what was really happening, Lufthansa should have been the one. They are the former German state airline & the ‘flag-carrier’ & would undoubtedly have contacts within German government & military with who they could discuss the situation relating to Ukraine airspace as it was developing & changing. (Indeed as a nation now amalgamated with it’s former Russian-backed East, they might be considered the best-placed in Western Europe to have people amongst their population who might ‘know-stuff’ about what’s happening in regards to Russia.?)
      Yet to my recollection, Lufthansa were never on the receiving-end of any of your wrath, other than your remarks that identified the other airlines who overflew that area of Ukraine before MAS that morning.

      MAS are based half a world away from Ukraine & were following the at the time accepted protocols & practices of overflying Ukraine as a corridor out of Western Europe.

      I fully accept the points you made about the limitations of the FL320 ceiling & the point about not observing the Russian NOTAM.

      What I am struggling (& always have struggled) with is why the unfortunate MAS were singled-out as fools with no regard for their passengers welfare, when other airlines with all the same information and far, far greater local knowledge and which made all the same decisions / mistakes as MAS, should be given a completely free-ride for their misjudgements.?

      IMO the number of previous shoot-downs in that conflict-area isn’t very important as they were all at relatively low levels. (notwithstanding your point about an airliner having to fly much lower if it lost an engine or depressurised)

      What I believe is important, is that the introduction of the BUK launchers into the zone makes the FL320 ceiling totally useless & should effectively render that part of Ukraine airspace closed. But this can only happen if the aviation authorities are aware of the change in circumstances.?
      If Russia doesn’t admit it’s put BUK’s into the conflict zone,
      If Ukraine doesn’t admit it knows/suspects that there are Russian BUK’s in the zone,
      If various intelligence communities are aware of the weapons but don’t pass this information on for their own national or departmental interests…….
      then how are the European flight coordinators going to know to change things & why is MAS, from the other side of the world, supposed to be wiser & better informed than Lufthansa or the rest of the Europeans.?

    2. Mick Gilbert

      Ben, apologies if I have diverted the discussion from the topic of airline risk management and accountability. However, on that topic, it is worth noting that Malaysia Airlines were not alone in continuing to fly over the Eastern Ukraine region at that time; on the day MH17 was shot down 160 other civilian flights flew through that airspace. Other airlines that continued to overfly the Ukraine included Singapore Airlines, EVA, Virgin Atlantic, Thai Airways, Qatar Airways, Etihad; Emirates and Austrian Airlines; none of them have a reputation as reckless operators and risk takers I wouldn’t have thought.
      When MH17 was downed Singapore Airlines flight SQ351 from Copenhagen was less than 3 minutes behind it. So, slice or dice this whatever which way but if MAS had decided to suspend flights through that region we’d probably now be talking about the SQ351 disaster. The constant in the discussion (and I would argue, the crux of the matter), however, would be who pointed a missile into a crowded civilian airway and pulled the trigger.

      1. Ben Sandilands

        No need for apologies on the part of any reader, the points about other airlines operating in this air space are highly relevant to the discussion. However they were also hung out to dry more than once in Plane Talking and a number of other web sites by name, and as I have also pointed out, it was yours truly’s bacon that was put at risk on Singapore Airlines’ A380 flights over east Ukraine twice in the preceding weeks when I flew the SIN-CDG route twice. The behavior of those named and I hope shamed other airlines was unacceptable. However it was Malaysia Airlines that lost a flight to a missile, and it was Malaysian officials who refused to co-operate with the Dutch Safety Board inquiry, and I don’t see even the slightest reason to cut them any slack over this. I did at the time extensively quote responses from Malaysia Airlines, which coincidentally or otherwise, came from an executive who no longer works for the airline.

        1. Dan Dair

          Ben,
          I never suggested that you cut MAS any slack. Your wrath & ire at the loss of 9M-MRD was & is wholly appropriate.
          I have always felt though, that the other airlines flying that same airspace didn’t get the tongue-lashing they were more than due, especially considering the proximity of the home bases of some of them.?

          And as I said in my posting on July 15, 2017 at 7:07 pm on this page,
          ‘I can neither understand, nor condone their (MAS) refusal to co-operate with the Dutch enquiry’.
          The only reason I can imagine that they would make that decision, is because they anticipated being ‘stitched-up’ as the ‘scapegoats’ for this sad affair.
          Whilst hoping not to create a bad pun, I feel that by not co-operating they shot themselves in the foot.

          All that said, as a result of the losses of MH370 & MH17 the airline, which had been struggling anyway, more or less went bust.
          They have certainly suffered far more than other airlines who were doing exactly the same things as Malaysian were.

          1. Mick Gilbert

            Dan, a point of clarification, to the very best of my knowledge Malaysia Airlines cooperated fully with the Dutch Safety Board; it was the Malaysian Department of Civil Aviation that failed to cooperate fully in that they refused to allow their officials to be interviewed by the DSB and they refused to accept requests for the provision of certain documents.

          2. Dan Dair

            Mick,
            I hadn’t realised the differentiation, obviously.!!

            I am cheered-up by that revelation
            & it plays into the ‘known’ scenario about the Malaysian authorities, from our unfortunate knowledge of them lying & generally failing to be forthcoming & truthful about the loss of 9M-MRO.

  5. Steve Barrett

    Mick Gilbert
    “There is little doubt that the Russians hit what they aimed at.” The question then is motive.

    Going back to that time many theories were circulating one of which was that the disappearance of 9M-MRO may have been a hijacking 9/11 event. I don’t doubt the innocence of two Ukrainian passengers on board but the Kremlin may have had adverse intelligence leading to a concern about Russian national security which made them act on 9M-MRD. Not an excuse I know and it suffers from multiple layers of assumptions that Ben pointed out. Also I agree with him 100% that whilst it might be a Russian missile MAS has some culpability.

    There is something inside me that had MAS abandoned flying over the Ukraine SQ351 would never have been hit. A thought bubble impossible to validate.

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