hms iron duke

hms iron duke

Wednesday, 14 October 2015

The MH17 Report

"The inflight disintegration of the aeroplane near the Ukrainian/Russian border was the result of the detonation of a warhead. The detonation occurred above the left-hand side of the cockpit. The weapon used was a 9N314M-model warhead carried on the 9M38-series of missiles, as installed on the Buk surface-to-air missile system. Other scenarios that could have led to the disintegration of the aeroplane were considered, analysed and excluded."

Dutch Safety Board

Alphen, Netherlands. 14 October. It is not with a certain irony that as the Dutch Safety Board was releasing its technical report into the destruction of Malaysian Airlines flight MH 17 I was briefing Air Marshal Sir Christopher Harper and his team at the International Military Staff at NATO HQ on “The Aims, Method and Application of Russia’s Ambiguous Foreign, Security and Defence Policy”. The irony, such as it is, is that Gilze-Rijen airbase where the report was launched, and where the remains of the doomed airliner rest, is right next door to where I live.

Some seven hundred pages long and divided into six volumes the report is the product of a seven country, fifteen month investigation and addresses several key technical questions concerning the destruction of the Boeing 777 en route from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur. The questions can be thus summarised: the exact sequence of destruction; the suffering if any of the passengers and crew prior to death; and the likely launch site of the missile.  However, the report does not apportion blame for the massacre as a parallel criminal investigation is underway.

The main finding is that at 1620 hours local on the afternoon of 17 July, 2014 193 Dutch citizens, 43 Malaysians, 27 Australians, 12 Indonesians, 10 Britons, 4 Germans, 4 Belgians, 3 Philippine citizens, 1 Canadian and 1 New Zealander were murdered by a Russian-built Buk 9M38 series anti-aircraft missile which detonated some 1 metre above and to left of the aircraft’s cockpit. The three crew on the flight deck were killed instantly. However, the report suggests that at least some passengers to the rear of the aircraft were not killed by the explosive decompression caused when the forward section of the plane detached from the main fuselage due to the force of the warhead’s detonation and the impact of many thousands of shaped steel fragments from the Buk’s warhead. Indeed, the report suggests that some passengers may have survived up to ninety seconds before they became unconscious and died.  

The report also states that the missile was launched from an almost two hundred square kilometre area south of the town of Snizhne, then controlled by separatists supported by Moscow. Whilst the report implies blame rests with Moscow and the separatists it arms, Kiev is not exonerated.  Indeed, the report is firm in its condemnation of Ukrainian authorities for not closing the air space over the conflict zone prior to the disaster.   Indeed, a further one hundred and sixty civilian aircraft flew over the area the same day before the air space was closed after MH17 crashed.

Upon release of the report Russian authorities moved swiftly to discredit it. Moscow asserted that the missile in question was not the 9N314M variant but an older version, implying that the missile that shot MH17 down could have been fired by the Ukrainians. Moscow also contested the area from which the missile was fired suggesting a much larger area than the report, again implying the Ukrainians could have been responsible.

Thus, a tragedy high above Ukraine involving the nationals of ten nations is still being compounded by a Moscow that simply refuses to come clean. Well-informed sources with whom I have had contact over the past few weeks have confirmed to me from where the missile was launched.  As time passes the now incontrovertible evidence will mount. Therefore, it would do Russia credit and give the relatives of the victims some sense of justice if Moscow simply admitted that the downing of MH17 was a terrible tragedy, resulting from a series of errors, misconceptions and mistakes on the part of poorly-trained Ukrainian separatists recently-returned from a training camp in southern Russia, and their GRU (Russian military intelligence) handlers.

The tragic mistake that is the MH17 disaster was compounded by the inability of the radar tracking system to identify the transponder on MH17 that would have confirmed the civilian identity of the airliner. Sadly, at the time of launch the main command and radar trailer was not attached to the launch vehicle.  Consequently, those responsible thought initially that they had shot down a Ukrainian AN-26 military transport aircraft. Although a Boeing 777 is far larger than an AN-26 the radar signature on the small auxiliary radar on the Buk launcher would not have afforded the operator the ability to distinguish between the two aircraft at a height of some 33,000 feet (10,000 metres).

There are two further ironies that echo from that terrible day. Ninety of the victims came from Noord Brabant where I live. Indeed, my wife lost a colleague at the University of Tilburg, together with his wife and two children. Moreover, I was at Amsterdam Schiphol Airport that day and quite probably walked past some of the victims who just a few hours later were blown out of the sky by a Russian missile.

Russia did not intend for this to happen but its recklessness created the circumstances in which this massacre could happen.  One of my many reflections from MH17 was the inspiring class and dignity shown by the Dutch nation and people in the aftermath of the disaster. It is time for Moscow to show some class and dignity and not just honour the victims of MH17, but all the victims of the conflict in Ukraine, on both sides. Therefore, Russia must sit down within the Minsk framework and Normandy format to resolve grievances peacefully...and apologise.

In honour of the crew and passengers lost on Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17, 17 July 2014.

Julian Lindley-French

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