NATO sources say the circumstances of the crash of Malaysian Airlines’ Flight MH17 in east Ukraine on 17 July point strongly to a sophisticated missile attack.
“It seems pretty obvious that this was a missile attack,” a NATO source told IHS Jane’s on 18 July, although the source said the alliance has little to go on at this point.
For example, allied Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) aircraft that were loitering in eastern Europe at the time of the crash “are going through their [recorded radar image] tapes but their orbits in Poland and Romania are not likely to reveal much. It’s not like we were able to see anything beyond images of the airliner flying peacefully through the air. The missile’s signature would have been difficult to see from where [the AWACS aircraft] were.” But the official also said that the incident “does have all the appearances of a strike”.
If so, then a central question is how eastern Ukraine’s rebel forces could have pulled that off?
“This could only have been a radar-guided missile – and not a [shoulder-fired] heat-seeking one. To launch that you need a team of at least three, if not four, highly trained personnel: someone to operate the radar, another to man the igniter, a C2 (command and control) guy and so on,” said the NATO source.
The source commented that, in terms of sophistication “this kind of missile falls just below a Patriot”, which means months of training by highly trained mentors: “Rebels can overturn buses and shoot people but they don’t normally have or know how to operate this kind of capability without formal training or outside assistance.”
For their part, European Union (EU) aviation authorities are withholding opinion until all the technical evidence is in.
“We are not here to speculate whether it was a missile because we have no independent verification of that yet,” an EU aviation policy official told reporters in Brussels on 18 July. “The state investigation has begun by Ukrainian authorities, but as for the technical investigation, it is proving difficult [for international investigators] to reach the area due to its rebel control.”
Debris from the Malaysian aircraft, a Boeing 777, rained down in a “huge 20 km2 area” across Ukraine’s two rebel-controlled provinces of Lubansk and Donetsk, said the EU official.
Noting that a 777’s flight recorder registers more than 1,000 parameters, the official said its analysis of how the aircraft’s fuselage and wing skins were bent by any explosion could help determine how a missile hit the aircraft. Its cockpit recorder would have also captured the sound patterns.
Asked about BBC reports of 18 July suggesting than one or more of MH17’s black boxes may have been carried to Moscow, the EU official declined to comment, saying only that “every parameter is dated, making it almost impossible to tamper with”.
Asked by IHS Jane’s if there have been any previous incidents where a government refused to hand over black boxes to international investigators, the EU official pointed to one: Korean Air Lines Flight 007, which was shot down in 1983 by a Soviet Su-15 interceptor in the Sea of Japan. “The black boxes were taken by the Russian authorities but only returned after the Cold War [ended],” the official observed.
The NATO source said there were previous signs the rebels were using more aggressive military tactics in their operating area. “They shot down three aircraft in the last week, so that perhaps should have been a warning,” said the source.
Officials from Eurocontrol – the pan-European aviation navigation authority – also briefed the EU press corps. According to one Eurocontrol official, only 25% of the world’s international carriers were steering around Ukraine when the Malaysian aircraft was brought down.
Meanwhile, a senior US State Department official said repeated efforts by the EU and Washington “have failed to persuade Russia” to stop its support for Ukraine’s separatists and to end its supply of weapons and financing to them – thus justifying the latest round of transatlantic sanctions against Moscow.
“In the face of the aggression that Ukraine faces and the continuing escalation of weaponry [in the region of eastern Ukraine], the US and Europe cannot stand by this threat, which is not just to Ukraine but to the peace and stability of Europe as a whole,” Victoria Nuland, assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, told reporters during a 17 July webinar briefing.
Noting that the new US sanctions ring-fence two Russian banks, two energy companies and eight defence manufacturers from the global economy, Nuland praised the EU’s recent moves to give itself the political and legal ability to impose sanctions in more sectoral areas.
“This means they can hit more individuals and entities and thus they will be able to do more in defence, banking, and energy as we have done,” she said.