Associate Fellow, Russia and Eurasia Programme
As more details emerge of the loss of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17, it seems increasingly likely that the tragedy was a result of a sequence of horrific miscalculations.
Debris from a Malaysia Airlines plane crash lies in a field on 18 July 2014 in Grabovka, Ukraine. Photo by Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images.Debris from a Malaysia Airlines plane crash lies in a field on 18 July 2014 in Grabovka, Ukraine. Photo by Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images.

At the time of writing, conclusive evidence of what missile destroyed the Malaysian airliner, and who fired it, has yet to be released. It can be assumed that Western governments will have been reviewing intelligence data available on the movements of heavy weapons, including anti-aircraft systems in eastern Ukraine and, potentially, across the Russian border. It may be, therefore, that previously classified information may soon be released to support allegations that the missile fired was from a Buk surface-to-air missile system, and where this system came from - whether captured from Ukrainian forces, or supplied directly from Russia.

In the meantime, the rapidly mounting circumstantial evidence continues to indicate that the missile was launched in error by the Russian-backed separatists, in the belief they were targeting a Ukrainian military aircraft. Immediately following the shootdown, the separatists claimed that they had destroyed a Ukrainian Antonov An-26 aircraft. The rapid removal of these claims from social media and Russian sources, and alleged intercepts of telephone conversations between separatists released by the Ukrainian security services, further suggests mistaken identity.

Aircraft identification

One key question is how it could be possible for those making the claim to confuse a civilian Boeing 777 with a Ukrainian military transport. Although these are both large twin-engine aircraft, they would look radically different when seen side by side on the ground. The Antonov has turboprop engines with visible propellers, as opposed to the Boeing's turbofan (jet) engines; it has its wings mounted high on the fuselage, and is approximately half the wing-span and one-third the length of the Boeing.

But the altitude of the Malaysian Boeing would make visual identification difficult even if it was within visual range of the launcher. Here, then, the critical factor is what radar signature would be visible to the operator of the missile system, including what information would be returned by the aircraft's transponder. Some variants of the Buk system do not have access to detailed target information, including transponder returns, which would be provided by additional and more accurate off-board command and control systems. In effect, all the operator can ’see’ is a large but unidentified aircraft within range. If this was indeed the case, giving an order to launch would be irresponsible to a degree which is hard to imagine.

The design of early variants of the Buk system is in relative terms unsophisticated and dates back to the 1970s. But this does not make it any less of a threat to an unprepared aircraft. There have been numerous examples of civil aircraft being downed by air defence missiles dating back decades. This has happened both by tragic error, as with Iran Air Flight 655 in 1988, and as deliberate and continuing policy by insurgents causing horrific civilian loss of life, as happened during the Rhodesian War in the late 1970s.

Tragic Error

In the case of MH17, tragic miscalculations may have combined to cause disaster. If the telephone recordings released by Ukraine are genuine, those who fired the missile seem to have assumed that no civilian airliner would be flying through - as they put it – a ‘war zone’. And Malaysia Airlines and other airlines assessed, on the balance of risk versus cost, that the route was safe to fly and that the ongoing hostilities - which included aircraft already being shot down at altitude - would not affect civil traffic at greater height.

But the immediate fault lies with those who were prepared to launch missiles into an international air lane without either the information on what they were firing at, or the competence to interpret that information. And, ultimately, the real blame lies with those who provided or acquired the missile systems in the first place, without ensuring adequate and appropriate control over their use.

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