The Mystery Of Flight MH17: Motives, Missiles, Flight Plans, And The Media

An intriguing piece on the shooting down of the Malaysian airliner by Lambert Strether, with thanks to Naked Capitalism:

By Lambert Strether of Corrente.

“It’s a very old tactic,” said Meredith.

“Though new to their audience…” said George, “who as you point out are thirteen years old.”

— William R. Gibson, Zero History

I don’t plan to solve the mystery — “Colonel горчица in the Library with the missile battery” — and I’m not even going to connect any dots. Rather, I’m going to take some prominent aspects of the current narrative and critique them, primarily by asking questions. I’ll begin with two caveats.

First, there’s just no getting around the fact that the United States government — or, as we like to call it, “our” government — just… just… Well, there’s really no nice way to say it: They just make sh*t up. Especially when they’re beating the war drums. And gosh darn it, our famously free press helps them! You’d be stupid to trust them! To understand this, we don’t have to believe three impossible things before breakfast, or buy into the Illuminati, or Area 51, or problems with the Apollo landing, and we don’t even have to attempt to disentangle ginormous tangled hairballs like the JFK (RFK (MLK (Wallace))) assassinations or (dread words) 911. (No. Don’t. No. I’m not going to “just look at the video.” Go away.) Let’s make it easy on ourselves, and more importantly, whoever we want to persuade, because all we have to do is remind people of a recent episode in our history that’s on the public record, easily accessed, and impeccably sourced: The Iraq WMDs debacle. There weren’t any. Remember? I got into the detail a bit more here, but I think there’s one money quote that sums up the whole sorry, murderous era, and it comes from what was known as “The Downing Street Memo.”

The Downing Street “Memo” is actually the minutes of a meeting, transcribed during a gathering of many of the British Prime Minister’s senior ministers on July 23, 2002. Published by The Sunday Times on May 1, 2005 this document was the first hard evidence from within the UK or US governments that exposed the truth about how the Iraq war began.

Now from the memo itself; I’ve helpfully underlined the money quote. (C is like “M” in James Bond.)

C reported on his recent talks in Washington. There was a perceptible shift in attitude. Military action was now seen as inevitable. Bush wanted to remove Saddam, through military action, justified by the conjunction of terrorism and WMD. But the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy. The NSC had no patience with the UN route, and no enthusiasm for publishing material on the Iraqi regime’s record. There was little discussion in Washington of the aftermath after military action.

(We now know that over $200 million dollars were spent doing the “fixing,” and over 50 stories were planted in the press, and that the effort was organized by an entity called the White House Iraq Group.)

Now, the foreign policy establishment is, like, an establishment: It doesn’t change much year to year, and the same bad actors — like the neocons! Like the Kagans! Like Victoria Nuland! Like John Brennan! — appear, Flexian-like, over and over, though playing different roles in different episodes. So, if “the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy” before the 2002 midterms by Bush, you can bet your bottom dollar that “the intelligence and facts are being fixed around the policy” before the 2012 midterms by Obama (or, as we like to call him, “the President”).[1] Please file all objections with The Department of No! They Would Never Do That!

Second caveat: In our critique, we should use as little digital evidence as possible. No Twitter, no FaceBook, and no YouTube, unless the provenance is absolutely ironclad, which for all practical purposes means hardly ever. (Judy Miller, after all, was once a respected reporter.) That is, when the Christian Science Monitor prints a headline like Web evidence points to pro-Russia rebels in downing of MH17 we should guffaw, and point out that “web evidence” is a contradiction in terms. Why? Because intelligence agencies can “seed the Internet with false information,” that’s why, and that includes tweets, Facebook pages, and YouTube videos.

So here are the three questions I’m going to ask:

Who had the motive to shoot MH17 down?
Was MH17 diverted from its course? If so, by whom and why?
Was MH17 shot down by a missile, and if so, how could that happen?
Now, before going on to answer — or fail to answer them — we should understand one thing about the overall context. I don’t always agree with The Saker, but here I think he’s got hold of the right end of the stick:

[I]t is a pretty safe guess to say that, especially considering the war going on right across the border, the Russians literally had it all on [the day MH17 went down]: civilians radars, of course, but also long range radars (ground based and airborne), lots of advanced advanced surveillance (long range detection) radars, lots of tracking and fire control radars numerous radio and signal interception stations. Since all the data from this integrated network of systems could be fused at the higher level command posts we can safely assume that the Russian side had something like “20/20 radar vision”: just about as good as it can get. … [A]nd speaking of Uncle Sam and his EU minions. They also know. The US and NATO maintains a 24/7 surveillance of Ukie and Russian air space at least to the Urals, possibly even on the other side (though I am not sure).

All the intelligence services already know the story. It’s only the public that’s in the dark. So as you read our famously free press baying and howling and speculating, keep that in mind.

1. Who had the motive to shoot MH17 down?

Shorter: Cui Bono. Here again, The Saker has good perspective:

Cui bono?

Well here at least the reply is unambiguous: only the junta in Kiev could have benefited from this tragedy. For the Russians and the Novorussians [the “rebels,” or “separatists”], this is something between a real pain and a disaster. Just when the Novorussians were winning without any overt help from Moscow and just when Moscow was gradually successful in denouncing the human costs of Poroshenko’s murderous policies – suddenly the entire planet focuses just on one downed aircraft and the imperial corporate media blames it all on Russia. As for Poroshenko, this disaster is God-sent: not only has everybody forgotten that much promised “surprise” turned out to be a disaster, he can now kill scores of Novorussians with no risks of that being reported in the corporate media. Not only that, but that gives the Ukies a golden excuse to ask for “protection” from their “aggressive and threatening neighbor”. Again, the only party who can benefit from this disaster is the junta.

So, in summary, we have this list of candidates:

1) A deliberate or mistaken Russian attack: superlatively unlikely

2) A mistaken Ukrainian attack: most unlikely

3) A deliberate Ukrainian attack: most likely

4) A mistaken Novorussian attack: possible

5) A deliberate Novorussian attack: most unlikely

I don’t know about you, but to me #3 is the one blinking red.

(The Saker forgot “the US administration in an election year,” but never mind that.) Of course, motive isn’t dispositive, but it’s nice to be clear. For myself, I’d give #4 (a mistaken “Novorussian” attack) more weight, but as we shall see, a lot of that depends on the concrete, on-the-ground operational characteristics of the missile batteries themselves.) Do note, however, that the Ukrainian media implicitly supports The Saker’s thesis. BBC:

The reaction of the Ukrainian media to the disaster is near unanimous on one point made forcefully by various newspapers including the popular daily, Segodnya. It says that the crash has become a “a turning point” in the armed conflict between the Ukrainian government forces and the pro-Russian separatists and that the war is no longer a local conflict.

Well, that’s an interesting point of view, isn’t it? If it’s no longer a “local conflict,” just what kind of a conflict is it?

2. Was MH17 diverted from its course? If so, by whom and why?

We ask this either if we’re the management of Malaysia Airlines, lawyers for the people killed, or if we have a scenario where MH17 was sent to its doom by being deliberately diverted into a war zone. Here’s how a diversion would have happened in the air traffic control system. Note there are two dimensions: left and right (into the zone), and up and down (into range of the missile). Here’s how the flight plan filed before departure and ATC works together in this context. Guardian:

Nico Voorbach, a pilot who flew the same journey earlier this summer for KLM, and who is president of the European Cockpit Association, said poor weather might have been the reason why flight MH17 found itself in the sights of a surface-to-air missile launcher. The aircraft was shot down in the separatist Donetsk region of east Ukraine.

Voorbach said: “I heard that they were diverting from some showers. I think there were thunderclouds. You would ask air traffic control to divert left or right, and they would give you the permission.”

It also emerged that flight MH17 had initially filed a flight plan requesting to fly at 35,000ft above Ukrainian territory. On entering Ukrainian airspace, however, the plane’s pilots were instructed to fly at 33,000ft by the local air traffic control due to other traffic. Malaysia Airlines said the pilots had to follow the lead of the local authorities.

Malaysia Daily Star (hat tip NotTimGeithner) confirms:

Ukraine’s air traffic control (ATC) did not permit Malaysia Airlines (MAS) Flight MH17 to scale 35,000 feet, said MAS director of operations Captain Izham Ismail.

He said MH17 planned to fly at 35,000 feet but according to the ATC, there was other traffic at that time, and the ATC ordered the doomed plane to fly at the next best altitude at 33,000 feet, which was above the restricted altitude.

According to Malaysian Transport Minister Datuk Seri Liow Tiong Lai, the direction given by the ATC needed to be obeyed since the route was under the ATC’s jurisdiction.

Izham said the route which MH17 flew was located about 100km from the restricted area, adding the ATC was actually the one which ensured whether any aircraft could use the route.

So that’s what reports at one remove tell us. Seeking independent confirmation, the pilots being dead and the Ukrainian Air Traffic Controllers not being available for interview, we ask ourselves subsidiary three questions:

Where is MH17 flight plan?
Where are MH17 flight recorders?
Where are the audio recordings of conversations between Ukrainian ATC and MH17?
Where is MH17 flight plan? Nobody seems to have actually seen it, or provided a copy of it. (Readers, feel free to add to my hasty research in comments.) So we really don’t have ironclad proof of deviation at all; deviation relative to what?

Where are MH17′s flight recorders? The Telegraph says this (July 18):

A tug of war is under way for possession of doomed flight MH17′s “black box” recorder amid reports the device, which could provide the key to the crash investigation, has already been sent to Moscow.

Aviation experts said the black box, comprising cockpit voice and data recordings, would establish for certain whether the plane was shot down and where the deadly missile may have been fired from.

The news service Interfax reported that rebel Russian separatist forces in Ukraine had already found the black box and agreed to give it to a Russian-run regional air safety authority.

But Russia Today says this (also on July 18):

Moscow has no plans to seize the flight recorders from the Malaysia Airlines flight MH17, which crashed in eastern Ukraine on Thursday, Sergey Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, told Rossiya 24 channel.

The seizure of flight records would violate international law as it’s up to relevant international agencies to investigate of the incident, he explained.

The analysis of the flight recorders “is the responsibility of ICAO International Civil Aviation Organization; it’s the responsibility of those states which have the most direct connection to this tragedy – the Netherlands, Malaysia and the states whose citizens were on board, and of course Ukraine,” Lavrov said.

And the following day, the Telegraph has this (July 19):

11.22 Failure to make available the “black box” flight recorders from the downed Malaysia Airlines plane would cause Russia “major embarrassment”, a UK computer systems engineering professor has said.

Not handing over black boxes to the appropriate investigating authority is “not playing by the rules”, said Professor David Allerton of the University of Sheffield.

He went on: “The only reason you would do something like this is if you had something to hide.”

His comments came amid reports that Russian separatists have possession of the black boxes – actually orange in colour – at the crash scene.

And there the trail goes cold.

Where are the audio recordings of conversations between Ukrainian ATC and MH17? This is simpler: Apparently, the Ukrainians have them. (I’m assuming these are records taken by the ATC, not on the plane.) BBC:

15:29: Ukraine’s SBU security service has confiscated recordings of conversations between Ukrainian air traffic control officers and the crew of the doomed airliner, a source in Kiev has told Interfax news agency.

So, if we want to establish, with some degree of certainty, whether MH17 deviated from its flight plan, we need the flight plan, the flight recorders, and/or the audio recordings. We don’t have the flight plan. The flight recorder, if indeed it has been found, is either still in the hands of the separatists, in the hands of the Russians, at ICAO, or possibly in transit to ICAO. (Actually, there are two boxes, one for data, one for voice, so there are 8 possibilities, not 4.) And the audio recordings — which I assume would be pilot to ATC only, and hence would not include others in the cockpit, which the cockpit voice recorder would do — are in the hands of the organs of state security in Ukraine. (Yes, we could use Flight tracker, but that won’t help us with deviations without the flight plan.) So how much do we really know? Not a lot.

3. Was MH17 shot down by a missile, and if so, how could that happen?

(I ask whether the MH17 was shot down by a missile on the theory that somewhere out there, there’s a theory it was shot down by fighter planes, or blown up by a bomb. From now on, I’ll assume a missile did the job.) The media converged on a “theory of the case” for the type of missile and the putative perp early on. Reuters is representative:

As Russia and Ukraine [and not the US?] trade blame over the apparent shooting down of a Malaysian airliner, they appear to agree on one thing: the type of Soviet-era missile that brought it down.

But if an SA-11 Buk missile, known as “Gadfly” in NATO, struck the aircraft and killed all 298 on board, that won’t solve the mystery of who did it: Russia, Ukraine and Russian-speaking rebels have all claimed the missile in their arsenals.

Circumstantial evidence points increasingly to the separatists, Western officials and analysts say, pointing to rebel claims of shooting at Ukrainian military aircraft at approximately the same time.

The rebels were believed to have used a similar system to shoot down a Ukrainian Antonov AN-26 [transport] aircraft on Monday.

OK, “rebels” + BUK. (There is also an SA-17 model besides the SA-11. Note that all the players in the region — Russia, Ukraine, and the rebels — had access to the BUK.) The theory then evolves to suggest that the rebels shot down MH17 by accident. The Mirror:

Leaked audio clips reveal the moment Russian rebels realise they have shot down flight MH17, Ukrainian intelligence agencies claim.

The Daily Beast:

The missile operators—relying on their limited information—may have mistakenly presumed that the Boeing 777 airliner was a military transport, like the Ukrainian An-26 shot down by rebels on Monday. “It definitely could have been an error,” Zaloga said. “I can’t imagine that anybody would take a deliberate shot at an airliner. I don’t think the Russian separatists are going to take a pot shot at a Malaysian airliner, and I don’t think the Russians are going to do that.”

Finch was more succinct in his initial opinion. “They got something on their radar screen, and they engaged it and now they’re like, ‘Oh shit, what have we done?’”<./p>

Now, to be fair, militaries with far more sophisticated command and control systems than the separatists have shot down civilian airliners with great loss of life. So it wouldn’t be the first time. But how exactly did the rebels come to make the mistake? (There’s a massive controversy on whether the separatists were sophisticated enough to operate the BUK without a lot of training from the ground up. I’m guessing they could; Russian engineering is famously simple and rugged, and designed for a conscript army; and I would further guess there are BUK subject matter experts in Ukraine. In other words, no, it wouldn’t take Spetsnaz types coming over the border.) There seem to be two questions: Whether the BUK could receive transponder signals from civilian aircraft[2], and whether a transponder was needed in the first place. (Transponders on civilian aircraft send out a four-digit “squawk” signal; military aircraft don’t, necessarily.) Bloomberg:

The SA-11 missile system has a device known as an IFF, or Identification Friend from Foe, and commercial airliners typically have a beacon [the transponder] that transmits their identification, [Theodore Postol, a professor of science, technology and national security policy at MIT] said.

It’s possible the shooter didn’t know how to interpret the data or use the IFF properly, Postol said. It’s also possible the airliner’s beacon was turned off or not working [Huh?], he said.

“A trained radar operator should be able to tell the difference between a Boeing 777 and an AN-26” cargo plane, said Bruce MacDonald, a former assistant director for national security at the White House Office of Science and Technology, who is now an independent consultant. “They operate at different altitudes, fly at different speeds.”

In other words, it should be possible for an operator to distinguish between an Antonov, which flies at 22,000 feet, from a civilian airliner flying at 33,000 feet, even absent an IFF reading. However, the MIT Technology Review suggests a different scenario:

Being a Soviet design, the user interface is fairly simple, says Michael Pietrucha, a former F-4G and F-15E electronic warfare officer and expert on air defenses. Pietrucha says he trained with German forces operating a similar Russian-built system during the 1990s.

Pietrucha says that the Buk variant that is likely to have been operated by the rebels might have been especially unable to distinguish between civilian and military air traffic because of a quirk related to aircraft transponders. The transponder is a device that broadcasts an aircraft’s identity when a radar “interrogates” it for information.

Military and civilian aircraft often use the same transponder modes and therefore that signal is not used as a “discriminator” for a military targeting system, Pietrucha says. The system has to be tied into the national air traffic control system to use that information effectively.

Finally, the Aviationist, a well-regarded amateur site, after presenting pictures of the BUC radar unit, flatly says the BUC has EFF:

But, Soviet-era air defense systems as the Buk are equipped with IFF (Identify Friend or Foe) systems meaning that they are able to detect if the system is targeting a civilian plane through its transponder code. Therefore, provided the operators are trained enough, they’ll be able to distinguish between a Ukrainian transport plane and a large airliner. If not, they will simply shoot.

So, there are two ways the accidental shoot down theory can be wrong: First, height is a sufficient discriminator. Second, the EFF system is installed and working. In each case, operators have to be sufficiently trained. But all agree that the rebels have no incentive to shoot down a civilian aircraft, and therefore somebody else did. Interviews with the operators and an examination of the missile battery would resolve this. That may, however, be unlikely:

Intelligence, including photographs and electronic intercepts, compiled by Ukrainian spies show that three Buk-M1 systems [ also known as the SA-11 Gadfly under the North Atlantic Treaty Organization designation] were shipped out of eastern Ukraine on flatbed trucks in two waves in the early morning of July 18, said [Vitaly Nayda, the head of the counterintelligence division of Ukraine’s security service]. A system missing a missile crossed the border in a flatbed truck to Russia at 2 a.m., and two other missile systems with complete set of missiles crossed at 4 a.m., he said. Mr. Navda said that his agency has shared this intelligence with U.S. officials, but it wasn’t possible to immediately verify his information.

And at this point, I’m irresistibly reminded of Saddam’s (non-existent) WMDs, which were also said to have disappeared, on trucks, over the border into Syria. Once again, how much do we really know?


Readers, I hope you’ll add much more information in comments, especially if you agree with me that there are far more questions than answers. Basically, I’m trying to make the case that looking to institutional structures, technical and operational issues, and cui bono will always be more fruitful than looking to “web evidence.” Of course, I weaken that case by not presenting a thesis, but the drumbeat for war, or at the very least war-like posturing, provides all the theses one could ever hope to fling. (And I hope readers with knowledge in all these areas will correct and extend this post.)

And remember: “The intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy.”


[1] I don’t want to belabor the history here, but the average age of a House personal staffer is 31. Therefore the average House staffer was 31 – (2014 – 2002) = 19 years old when Bush fixed the intelligence and facts around the policy to get the country into the Iraq War. I don’t know if you can remember what you were doing when you were 19, but if you were like me, whatever it was you were doing wasn’t a critique of White House tactics for trumping up the case for war.

[2] I’ve gotta say, the separatists aren’t dunces — I mean, at least they aren’t Nazi wannabes or Mad Max types; Ukraine isn’t Somalia — and so even with a somewhat fluid and organic command structure, it’s hard for me to imagine a rebel commander handing over a missile battery to what must be a reasonably technical team without saying something like: “Oh, and before I go, try not to shoot down any civilian aircraft, OK?” And if the command structure is fluid, wouldn’t the missile guys feel free to respond “Sorry, chief. No can do. Do we still push the button?” But I don’t have a military background, so I’m not sure my sense of the absurd has been triggered appropriately. And it’s not unknown for officers to do extremely stupid things.


3 responses to “The Mystery Of Flight MH17: Motives, Missiles, Flight Plans, And The Media

  1. excellent article. Well researched and makes some very valid points. Had a quick look at Fox news promoting the usual “Attack Russia, Kill Putin” agenda. Maybe you could send a link to the post to those guys.

  2. As to responsiblity, anything’s possible. However one thing is certian. This horrible tragedy will be exploited for thoroughly cynical reasons by politicians who care nothing for loss of life when it serves their own purposes.

  3. The Western nations had a chance to get the drumbeat for war started well before this with the trade sanctions they imposed after Crimean annexation. Weak and well flagged beforehand, they had only a cosmetic effect, as was the intention.This is a case of nobody benefiting.

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