Mistral missile systems.
Responsibility and irresponsibility
The tragic fate of Malaysia Airlines' flight MH17 in eastern Ukraine has literally fed kerosene to the already flaming debate of partisan responsibility – and irresponsibility – in Ukraine.
It will most likely take plenty of time, if ever, before we’ll know all the relevant facts related to the yesterday's tragic flight accident. However, based on the information already on hand, it seems probable that the flight MH17 was shot down by a single surface-to-air missile (SAM). It is also probable, if not verified*, that the missile in question was launched by the pro-Russian troops operating in East Ukraine.
In this case the most likely culprit is Buk-M1 (9K37M1, NATO “Gadfly”). It was more than two weeks ago when the pro-Russian troops first claimed they had captured parts of this early 1980s (ex-Soviet) medium-range SAM-system from the Ukrainian armed forces. It seems this claim has now been substantiated, even if Ukraine’s government in Kiev has repeatedly denied this.
In the past pro-Russian separatist have very clearly demonstrated their possession and use of Strela 2 (9K32) and Igla (9K38, 9K38M) MANPADS, but the vertical reach of these small shoulder launched missiles is nowhere even close to the cruising altitudes normally used by long haul passenger aircrafts like Boeing 777. The flight level (FL330 – 33 000 ft / 10 000 m) used by the flight MH17 just before the accident has also been verified by several third party sources, so there is little doubt it was flying well above the reach of all man-portable system. Same goes to that single Strela-10 (9K35) SAM-system pro-Russian troops have been seen driving in and around Donetsk.
On the other hand, a launch and overflight of a large missile from long range SAM-systems like S-300/400 – from Russia – would have been easily observable from both ground and space.
So what did happen?
It is possible that the MH17, approaching high from west, was misidentified as Ukrainian military transport aircraft. Even more likely so, if the pro-Russian troops were operating under the impression that the airspace over eastern Ukraine had been declared as a no-fly zone for the international overflight traffic (it wasn't – AIS Ukraine/Eurocontrol/ICAO had only distributed a relevant NOTAM for FL320 and below).
It is also possible, even probable, that the missile was launched quickly, using just a single Buk-M1 TELAR (transporter erector launcher and radar, СОУ 9А310М1) –vehicle in autonomous mode. It can function without the assistance of command (КП 9С470М1) and 3-D target acquisition radar (СОЦ 9С18М1) vehicles of a complete Buk-M1 –system, but in this case it would have operated under a severely limited capabilty to track and identify targets.
And here's a fitting picture* of a lone Buk-M1 TELAR (9А310М1) being hauled in a semi-trailer at Thursday. It was taken in the city of Torez (Торе́з), some 50 km east from the city of Donetsk:
If and when this launcher was operating in haste, without any assistance from normal battery or battalion level functions, even the exact flight level and velocity of the target may have been missed or ignored – even more likely so, if this rogue TELAR vehicle was manned by just a single trained Buk-operator and few henchmen. And yes, contrary to what has been now claimed, a single TELAR vehicle in autonomous mode can be operated, if necessary, by a one well-trained operator, assisted by few quickly trained ersatz-operators. And there isn’t exactly a shortage of trained Buk-operators, whether reservists, active or ex-soldiers, in Ukraine or Russia – or in many third party countries, including Finland.
And after the 3,5 mach semi-active radar homing 9M38 missile has been successfully launched to the proper interception vector, it has a very near 100 % hit (and kill) probability against any civilian passenger aircraft following a straight path in static cruising speed and altitude – unless somebody shuts down or blocks the fire control radar from the TELAR vehicle.
Responsibility, Retribution & Restoration
It is also very difficult to see any motivation for a planned destruction of a civilian aircraft with nearly 300 foreign passengers on board – for any of the state or non-state parties involved in this conflict. So this tragedy was most likely a result of grave error(s) – an accident.
But just to note that while this was probably – even with high likelyhood – a tragic accident w/o direct intention, it doesn’t, in any way or form, eliminate or transfer the moral and legal responsibility of all the partisans. Any sane moral and most legal systems recognize the principle of dolus eventualis – if a perpetrator objectively foresees the possibility of his act causing damage and persists regardless of the consequences, it suffices to find him guilty with intention.
It should also be noted that almost all major man-made accidents and disasters have later turned out to be a result of many – serial or parallel – events gone wrong. Very often these events are also the net result of gross negligence of multiple parties, and this seems to hold true also in the tragic case in hand. But getting all the parties to acknowledge their share of responsibility afterwards is often hard, if not even impossible.
So I'm not trying to say that this was a work of lone missileman.
What I'm implying with all this is that as much as there should be no Russian troops invading Crimea, and no pro-Russian troops fielding any weapons systems in eastern Ukraine, there should also be no commercial aircrafts over flying areas of active air combat operations, especially, when there is plenty of evidence of active use of surface-to-air missile systems – and even more so, when several military aircrafts have already been lost due to this SAM-activity in the past weeks and days.
But I hear overflights are good business, flight routes over Ukraine short and kerosine expensive.
So it doesn't take a crystall ball to envisage that this tragedy will continue to burn for years, if not decades, in the courtrooms of several countries, in forms of both criminal and civil litigations.
However, the very sad and cold truth is that even if these a posteriori legal processes can perhaps offer some form of retribution, they will never achieve restoration, as no process can bring back the already tragically lost lives. I can only extend my most sincere condolences to the victims' families and loved ones.
Update – *It is still not 100 %, but there are now plenty of video and still images, geolocated by third parties, showing a Buk-M1 TELAR vehicle operating in the eastern Donetsk area at Thursday. It was first spotted in the city of Torez (Торе́з) and was then later pictured both in transit to and in the city of Snižne (Сніжне), respectly some 50 km and 70 km east from the city of Donetsk. Both places are under pro-Russian control. Would fit the bill perfectly.
Author has often flown from Amsterdam, over Ukraine, to Asia.
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