As speculation and uncertainty surrounds the downing of MH17, we scrutinise the conspiracy theories, examining the current evidence and the potential course of the upcoming investigation.
The overwhelming likelihood is that Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 was shot down by an SA-11 ‘Buk’ surface to air missile. Reports that separatists had obtained this system started appearing three days before MH17 was shot down and it is likely to have been responsible for shooting down a Ukrainian An-26 military transport on 14 July.
The latter was shot down at above 22,000ft which is beyond the range of man-portable air defence systems (MANPADS) such as the SA-18/24 Igla which have previously formed the backbone of separatist anti-aircraft firepower. The SA-11 is the only system known to have been in the Donetsk area capable of destroying MH17 at 33,000ft.
Shrapnel Damage Observed on MH17 Wreckage and the ‘Ukrainian Su-25 Theory’
The shrapnel damage observed so far on the wreckage of MH17 is consistent with what would be expected after an SA-11 high-explosive fragmentation warhead interception. Air to air missiles like the R-60/AA-8 or the R-73/AA-11 which can be carried by the Su-25 attack jet feature a ‘continuous rod’ warhead type which inflicts deep ‘cut’ type damage patterns, unlike the dispersed shrapnel damage observed on the wreckage of MH17.
Furthermore, the Su-25, which the Russian Ministry of Defence has implied was involved in the incident, has a service ceiling of 22,950ft – 10,000ft below the altitude MH17 was flying at. The Su-25 also has no air-to-air radar and would therefore have had to use an Infra-Red (heat) seeking missile which would have detonated near the engine pods on MH17, not near the cockpit as the shrapnel damage suggests. The Ukrainian government also has no reason to shoot down any aircraft and has not done so during this conflict because the separatists do not possess aircraft. This means that any aircraft operating over the conflict zone would be by necessity either civilian (and therefore in contact with Ukrainian air traffic control with an approved flight plan) or Ukrainian or Russian military.
MH17 was flying eastwards, away from Ukrainian territory and was, therefore, not on a threat vector. Furthermore, despite multiple violations of Ukrainian airspace by Russian military aircraft in previous months, none have been engaged. The last thing the Ukrainian armed forces want is to shoot down a Russian aircraft as this would provide a perfect pretext for direct Russian military intervention in Eastern Ukraine.
Avenues of Investigation
Given the large-scale contamination of the crash site and allegations of deliberate tampering of evidence by separatists, many are asking what effect this will have on the international investigation into this crime. The irony is that for all the focus on the air crash investigation, the crash site itself is unlikely to provide conclusive proof of who shot down MH17. The ‘black box’ data recorders may be able to provide a sound signature of the missile explosion which should help investigators confirm that it was indeed an SA-11 missile. This may finally rebut Russian and separatist claims that a Ukrainian air-to-air missile was responsible. However, this will not conclusively prove who fired the SA-11 since the Ukrainian military, the Russian military and the separatists all possessed this system at the time of the incident. The black box cannot reveal where the missile came from because airliners are not typically equipped with missile approach warning sensors. MH17 had no equipment capable of tracking the missile and feeding that information to the in-flight data recorders.
The most likely source of conclusive evidence is American military surveillance satellites. These were almost certainly in orbit over Ukraine at the time of MH17’s destruction as the conflict has been ongoing for many months and the US government has been closely monitoring flows of Russian military equipment across the border to the separatists. These satellites may well have picked up the missile launch and the US government claims to have proof that it was fired from separatist territory. This data/footage and also crucially where the launcher went after the missile was launched will be the critical evidence in proving that separatist forces fired the missile. It may also reveal the source of the launcher, if it can be shown conclusively that the launcher was subsequently taken back across the border to Russia as Ukrainian intelligence sources claim.
The most likely explanation for the delay in making this intelligence public is that the US government is waiting for the official enquiry to show its full intelligence picture. This not only delays making their most advanced surveillance capabilities public, but also forces disinformation efforts to work in the dark. It is much more difficult for Russian and separatist sources to discredit the US satellite evidence before the enquiry if they are unaware of precisely where to focus their efforts.
Where did the Separatists Obtain an SA-11?
There are two possibilities, assuming it is proven that separatist forces are responsible for downing MH17 with an SA-11. The first is that it was supplied by Russia in the week leading up to the destruction of MH17. This is the most likely theory since the separatists have suffered serious defeats in recent weeks and have been pushed back to Donetsk by an increasingly confident Ukrainian military. Since Mr Putin evidently believes he cannot let the separatists be defeated, he has increased supplies of heavy weapons to the separatists after the retreat from Slavyansk. Given the Ukrainian military’s increasingly confident use of airpower, the SA-11 used to shoot down MH17 may well have been part of these efforts to turn the tide around Donetsk.
The other possibility is that separatist forces captured an SA-11 from previously-overrun Ukrainian military depots. However, this is unlikely since almost all the depots in question were overrun months ago and the separatists have been retreating in recent weeks, not taking over new depots, despite separatist claims to the contrary. If the SA-11 had been captured from a Ukrainian depot, we would have expected to see evidence of its use months ago. The separatists have been shooting down Ukrainian military aircraft for months but only with MANPADS such as the SA-18/24. They have been in dire need of greater anti-aircraft capability in the face of Ukrainian airstrikes and so, if they had captured an SA-11 system months ago, it would have already been used.
Research Fellow, Airpower & Technology