The Hague: MH-17 Was Shot Down


Image courtesy of CBS News.

The Hague: MH-17 Was Shot Down
| published September 10, 2014 |

By R. Alan Clanton
Thursday Review editor

Though it was never really in question, and though much of the world was skeptical of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s explanations and equivocations, at least one major international authority has ruled the downing of Malaysian Airlines flight 17 as a deliberate act—and one not related to the function or safety of the airplane.

The Hague has ruled that its initial investigation into the July 17 crash indicates that MH17 was struck by “high-energy objects from outside the aircraft.” Though this ruling comes in a little short of calling the crash the result of rockets or missiles, it closes the possibility of an aviation malfunction, pilot error or a bomb already on board the plane.

Malaysian Airlines MH17 exploded in the skies over war-torn Eastern Ukraine in July, killing all 298 passengers and crew on board. It was on a routine flight from the Netherlands to Malaysia, and on board were civilians from dozens of countries in Europe and Asia. At the time of its downing, the plane was over a rural area of the Ukraine, roughly 19 miles from the border with Russia. Debris came down across a five mile stretch of farmland and sunflower fields between Rozsypne and Grabavo, near Donetsk.

Earlier the day of the downing, civilians, reporters and photographers witnessed the arrival into the area of a Russian-made BuK-M1 surface-to-air missile system—a powerful rocket-launching platform designed to shoot down high-altitude aircraft. The BuK-M1 system was then in the hands of pro-Russian militants who were fighting the Ukrainian army. In the seconds before the jetliner disappeared from radar contact, U.S. and British satellites captured a heat signature on the ground which matched that of the firing of a Gadfly rocket—a type of high-speed missile used on a BuK launching platform.

Moments later, Malaysian Airlines flight 17 vanished from radar and all voice and electronic contact was lost to air traffic controllers in Europe. Ukrainian authorities, who were routinely monitoring radio communication between the rebels and their Russian handlers across the border, intercepted messages indicating that the pro-Russian militants has shot down a plane.

Later that day the militants and some Russian handlers began to deny that a plane had been shot down. (The Ukrainians have recordings of radio chatter which purports to indicate shock and surprise when the first militant teams reach the crash site; the recordings include cursing and heated acknowledgments that someone had mistaken the civilian plane for a military transport or fighter).

Despite the initial evidence that the plane was shot down—as a deliberate act, or perhaps as an accident, the result of an inexperienced crew on the ground mistaking the plane for a Ukrainian military flight—the militants denied that any rockets had been fired that day in Eastern Ukraine. Moscow later claimed that it was the Russian contention that the plane had been shot down by Ukrainian fighter jets.

The report stating that the plane was shot down was issued by the Dutch Safety Board, which is the first of several investigations into the incident. The Dutch Safety Board did not offer an explanation of who might have fired the missile, or missiles, which downed the Boeing 777 airplane. But the report was clear on the cause of the crash.

“The damage observed in the forward section of the aircraft,” the report says, “appears to indicate that the aircraft was penetrated by a large number of high-energy objects from outside the aircraft. It is [therefore] likely that this damage resulted in a loss of structural integrity of the aircraft, leading to an in-flight break-up.”

Other high-velocity missiles have been considered, but most weapons experts and aviation analysts agree that shoulder-fired rockets do not have the ability to reach high altitudes, and rockets fired from another aircraft are unlikely since radar and air traffic control data for that day show no other airplanes—of any kind or size—in the vicinity when MH-17 was shot down. Furthermore, some aviation investigators who have seen the remains of the plane or have studied photos of the parts say that the exterior damage is consistent with the theory that the plane was hit by high-speed, high-energy projectiles.

The plane’s black box recorder and other electronic devices indicate that the airplane was functioning normally in the hours and minutes before the crash.

Investigators have much more work to do before a more comprehensive conclusion can be reached, but a violent on-the-ground war in Eastern Ukraine is hampering a full study of the crash site and its extensive debris field.

Related Thursday Review articles:

The Economic Impact of Ukraine’s War; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; August 25, 2014.

Information is War; Truth is its Casualty; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; July 23, 2014.