Jul 18, 2014

MH17: why a commercial jet was flying over a war zone

The Russian separatists who shot down MH17 allegedly thought it was a military target -- though it was easily distinguishable as a commercial plane.

Ben Sandilands — Editor of Plane Talking

Ben Sandilands

Editor of Plane Talking

The truth about the destruction of MH17 has come out far faster than the baffling and totally unrelated mystery of the disappearance of MH370 on March 8. But a crucial question remains: what was the commercial jet doing flying over a war zone in the first place? The jet and its 298 souls were targeted, tracked and destroyed by a modern warfare surface-to-air missile (SAM) launched by Russian separatists controlling the part of the eastern Ukraine, where it crashed to earth. If as intelligence sources have unambiguously suggested this SAM was a Russian-made BUK, it requires a very deliberate drill by a launch squad that chose the target, locked onto it, and pressed the fire button the moment the control system had computed the intercept trajectory and loaded it into the already primed missile. If the now widely circulated recording of conversations by separatists involved in the launch are the real thing, the jet was shot down in the belief that it was a military target. As one voice is heard saying, after the bodies of adults and children are found after the kill, “they must have been carrying spies ….. What are they doing flying here? …. This is a fucking war.” But some airlines had been routinely flying over Ukrainian airspace since the war started. Visibility is shown in the newscasts as being more than adequate for a normal sighted adult to have recognized MH17 for what it was -- a commercial flight. At 33,000 feet the shape and even livery of a large airliner is quite obvious, and the flight was quite obviously not military in its profile or other characteristics. But with the attitude conveyed by the people in the alleged recording of the conversations after the missile hit, it is only by chance that the SAM-launching platoon didn’t bring down an even larger A380. The destruction of MH17 raises exceptionally awkward questions for civil aviation authorities and air traffic control systems in general. Whatever logic was employed in deciding that it was safe to fly over a war zone at more than 32,000 feet, it was woefully ignorant of the capabilities of modern SAM systems, which in their heavier more capable forms are intended to destroy targets that may be supersonic and flying at much higher altitudes. It all smacks of decision-making that favoured fuel-saving corridors over routes that avoided the risks of conflicts in which contemporary weapons technology is being used.

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45 thoughts on “MH17: why a commercial jet was flying over a war zone

  1. Limited News

    Zero Hedge casts a critical eye over the “evidence”

    Normally lining up with the US over a dispute with Russia comes at zero political cost, but starting WWIII on the basis of a YouTube video is pretty crap.


    As in the case of MH370 this aircraft was likely high-jacked by remote control.

  3. cairns50

    get real, many other airlines have been flying that route as well, your picking on malaysian airlines due to the other tragedy that happened months ago

  4. michael r james

    The big question remaining is how did the rebels get a BUK. Was it supplied by the Russians to the rebels, or did the rebels manage to confiscate it from the Ukraine forces (and manage to learn how to use it)?

    The significance of this is not so much the loss of a civilian plane but in the wider geo-political consequences. It could be a glass half-full if it rebounds against Putin’s regressive and aggressive attempts to overturn the incursion of democracy into “his” part of the world.

    Where are the black boxes and who has them in their possession?

  5. Iskandar

    I sent the following letter to Bill Shorten this morning. Worth posting here also:

    A terrible tragedy happened this morning with the shooting down of MH17 over the war zone of eastern Ukraine. You made some comments on commercial TV to the effect that it was shot down by “pro-Russian terrorists”. This may or may not prove to be the case but I was shocked that you would use the language of the demented oligarch and US-installed and propped-up puppet president of Ukraine Poroshenko. The truer definition of his opponents in the east should be “anti-Kiev separatists” who want nothing to do with his regime which has stated its intent of “ethnically cleansing” or worse the Russian-speaking population of the region.

    Are you truly not aware that the civil war in Ukraine was sparked off by US interference in Ukraine’s internal affairs since the beginning of this year? Are you not aware that the likes of Victoria Nuland, John McCain and Joe Biden were in Kiev addressing the Maidan rallies before the movement was high-jacked by well-organised paramilitary thugs of neo-fascist persuasion, resulting in the putsch which toppled the corrupt but nevertheless legal government?

    Are you further not aware of the fact that when a war starts events spiral out of control, creating a fog in which super-hyped young men with powerful weapons make mistakes, and civilians who blunder into a war zone become victims? The MH17 incident I suggest was the result of a long chain of events, and what are needed now are cooler heads in a highly-charged atmosphere, to see the bigger picture and step back from the brink. I hope you are capable of this but from your comments above I am not so sure.

    I offer one other piece of “intelligence” for your consideration. At the D-Day commemoration in Normandy, Tony Abbott was spotted in news footage having a quiet chat with the above-mentioned Poroshenko. My suspicious mind suspected they were discussing the likelihood of a 911-type event to stir up some jingoistic militancy for their mutual political advantage. I even made a comment in this regard to Crikey at the time. Imagine me waking this morning to find that suspicion coming to pass.

    So please Bill Shorten, I am an ALP supporter (and member), and I ask you to see the bigger picture, and differentiate yourself and our party from the jingoistic rantings that we can now expect from the conservative side.

  6. Roger Roger

    “Visibility is shown in the newscasts as being more than adequate for a normal sighted adult to have recognized MH17 for what it was — a commercial flight.”

    Yes, but with aid of a telescopic device. I live almost under the busiest flight corridor in Australia and I can if not impeded by cloud, identify aircraft at cruise altitude with an ordinary pair of binoculars. You would’ve thought that those responsible for launching a BUK would’ve used a far superior visual aid.

  7. bushby jane

    Wouldn’t the air traffic control systems or whatever in Ukraine have been able to identify what and who the Malaysian Airlines plane was? Even allowing for them maybe not being able to see it?

  8. Roger Roger

    Bushby Jane, the answer is yes. Airliners have transponders which constantly transmit flight parameters including identification. These/some parameters get fed inter alia to the website, though on some routes like Sydney to Canberra I think that info is suppressed or filtered out. Ben might know more about that.

  9. Tracey R

    “Visibility is shown in the newscasts as being more than adequate for a normal sighted adult to have recognized MH17 for what it was — a commercial flight. At 33,000 feet the shape and even livery of a large airliner is quite obvious, and the flight was quite obviously not military in its profile or other characteristics.”

    No. Visual identification is not normally used, this is because the aircraft target is initially too far away: Missiles are not launched when the aircraft is overhead, but before it is above the radar. This is standard tactical doctrine for the reasons of shortening flight missile flight time (which is limited), easing intercept geometry and shooting down the aircraft before it can damage you.

    The missile radar operator procedure is that the tracking radar will acquire the aircraft at long range. At 30,000 ft, 100km range is easily possible with a modern radar. A firing solution will be generated and the missile launched and guided by a separate radar sub-system.

    The whole event may also be compounded by the fact that they thought they were shooting down an Antonov transport, which would look broadly similar visually.

    The Antonov transport might also fly at higher altitudes to avoid man portable missiles, which is common tactical doctrine. It would probably not follow a commercial flight track, though.

    The radar might have had the capability to interrogate the transponder on commercial flights as part of its identification friend or foe (IFF) system.

    In the fog of war the mistake is easy to make. The USS Vincenes shot down Iran Air Flight 655 in 1988 at a range of 15-20km. The radar systems on the USS Vincenes would probably have been better that the Russian system. The Vincenes felt directly threatened, following the shooting of the USS Stark, which made a quick firing decision imperative, though.

    This is the sort of tragic mistake that happens in a war.

  10. Douglas Ross Robbins

    Having flown with Malaysia Airlines just 10 days ago, en-route LHR-KL, I was indeed surprised (if not quietly concerned) to watch our flight track over the Ukraine. Broad daylight and CAVOK.
    I agree with Ben Sandilands that this looks like a fundamental failure of the application of “duty of care” on behalf of the Malaysia Airlines as well as others (Singapore Airlines no less!). This apparent failure is exacerbated by the fact that other airlines e.g.Qantas, have diverted around the area for months. It also surprises me to see that the intended track of MH17 (and my flight MH 2) was over Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan as well!

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