The coverage and comment on the (probable) shooting down of the Malaysian airliner by Separatists is Eastern Ukraine is starting to grate a little. I see that some lawyers are now suggesting that families of the victims are now suggesting suing Mr Putin. Malaysian Airlines are blaming IACO (the civil aviation organisation). In all the blame allocation it is likely that the facts will become subservient to greater political or financial purposes.
Let’s review what is known:
• The aircraft was at 30,000 feet over Eastern Ukraine when it ceased flying.
• Early indications are that it was hit by a SA-11 missile, launched from Eastern Ukraine.
• The SA-11 missile is of Russian design and manufacture. It has been exported widely, including to the Ukraine (I think as part of the breakup of the former Soviet Union).
• Intelligence sources report that they intercepted communications by the separatists referring to shooting an airliner down.
• The separatists are engaged in heavy combat with the Ukrainian Army, and have been shooting down Ukrainian combat aircraft.
What is not known is who fired the missile and why. So let’s speculate a little.
The missile could have been fired by the Ukrainians, the Separatists or the Russians. I don’t think it was the Ukrainians as they are desperately courting support from the west and don’t face much of an air threat, if any, from the Separatists. Their armed forces are regular and well trained. There is a scenario which accepts all this, but notes that the Ukrainians stand to benefit most from this unfortunate incident and that therefore they fired the missile themselves and blamed the separatists. While I have no evidence on this either way, it seems unlikely that they would be able to cover this up for long. I therefore conclude that it was not the Ukrainians.
As the SA-11 has a range of about 10 miles, it can’t have been fired from inside of Russia. As the Russian army is not officially in Eastern Ukraine, the Russians too are in the clear – although they will get some heat as the manufacturer of the missile and more if it transpires that they supplied the system to the Separatists direct, rather than the Separatists acquiring it from captured Ukrainian stocks. It is possible that there are Russian Special Forces operating in support of the Separatists as covert advisors. If they are, then operating complex systems such as air defence missiles may well be within their remit. However, if they do exist and were operating the equipment they would be under extreme pressure to keep their presence secret and avoid politically embarrassing complications of the sort that the shooting down of MH17 has caused. Russian special forces are well trained, and while mistakes happen I think this is a less likely scenario.
Which leaves the Separatists themselves. We do know that they have been shooting Ukrainian military jets down and we know that the Ukrainian military has been attacking them strongly and successfully from the air. For sure therefore the Separatists have the means and motivation to engage aircraft. So the question then becomes how did they mistake a modern Boing airliner for a Ukrainian combat jet? It is important to remember that radar returns themselves only identify the location and (in some cases) speed and direction of movements of targets. Remember also that military radars in combat zones operate at the significant risk of having anti-radar missiles fired at them; there is therefore a premium on having them turned on for the minimum time. It would be reasonable to deduce therefore that the operators of the SA-11 felt under significant pressure and possibly mortal peril. It is also likely that they operate in a less structured environment than a regular army and have less robust command and control systems. I postulate that they interpreted the screens with a heavy bias of their previous experience (Ukrainian aircraft attacking Separatist ground forces) and therefore fired at what they assumed was a military target. From that moment MH17’s fate was sealed.
I believe therefore that the deaths of the crew and passengers of MH17 arose as a result of a mis-identification of a target by soldiers under high pressure and perceived mortal peril. This sounds rather like many of the incidents of “collateral damage” and unintentional killing of civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan by US, UK and other coalition forces over the past decade
So who is to blame?
The Ukrainians must be largely blameless as they are fighting an armed insurrection.
The Separatists made a mistake, but no greater a mistake than many similar ones made by western armed forces in the past decade. The argument in their defence would be largely the same as the one made by coalition forces after similar unintentional slaughter of Afghan civilians. Governments in glass houses should not throw stones.
The Russians make the SA-11, and certainly have been mischievous in creating and exploiting this insurrection. If they are to be castigated for making the weapon then many other arms manufacturing countries are likely to be in the same boat. If the weapon was captured from the Ukrainians then the Russians could reasonably argue that the blame lies with the Ukrainians for losing the system to the Separatists. If, as is possible, the Russians supplied the weapon to the Separatists directly then they are more culpable, but they will then make the collateral damage argument perfected by the UK and US in Afghanistan.
The unavoidable face is that the flight MH17 chose to be there. It was known that there was an air war going on, and any fool with access to the internet could establish that 30,000 feet is no protection against a surface to air missile. While taking another routing could increase fuel consumption, and thus cost, it seems to me reckless indeed to fly passengers through a combat zone where such weapons are active. The airline may complain that IACO should have told them, but that is cant. It is the airline’s job, specifically the aircraft captain’s, to operate the plane safely and to avoid unnecessary hazard. In this case, the hazard was probably under-estimated and clearly not avoided. The sorry truth is that a little thought and a few gallons of aviation fuel would have avoided the entire incident. Yet strangely, no newspaper or lawyer is yet threatening Malaysian Airlines