MH17 Update

Kindly translated by Anne-Marie de Grazia

Dedicated to the late Alfred, her husband, who just passed away some days ago.

The destruction of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 on July 17th has stirred an intense and justified emotion. Contradictory claims and accusations have followed on the heels of each other. Details available to the broader public are extremely fragmentary. Yet, one may notice some inconsistencies, on the side of the governments of NATO and of the press of NATO-member countries, in the allegations involving the Ukrainian rebels. The Ukrainian claims that they have “proofs” of insurgent action are so far extremely sketchy and even completely fabricated. One video, presented as a “proof”[1] has been actually fabricated one day before the downing of the plane. The creation date of the video was actually July 16th 2014 at 19:10:24. The creation date cannot be changed in any manner, other than by re-creating and re-uploading the video at a future date. The video was then re-uploaded later and the re-upload date was July 18th 2014 at 00:09:00. This clearly demonstrate that the video was a fake[2].

One thing, which seems to be established (but we shall see that it is not certain), is that the destruction of the Boeing 777 of Malaysian Airlines is due to a ground-to-air missile (GAM or SAM). One must therefore be reminded of some basic facts concerning these missiles. Their range as well as the altitude which they can reach depend on the amount of energy contained in the fuel of their rocket engine. But this range, as well as this altitude, are also dependent of the characteristics of their potential target. Faced with a fast-flying airplane, the range will be shorter than with a slow-flying airplane. Contrarily, a slow-flying airplane will be more vulnerable at a certain altitude than a fast-flying one.

I. What weapons are at the disposal of the insurgents of the Eastern regions of Ukraine?

Up until now, the insurgents have used portable missiles, which can be shot from the shoulder. These missiles are descendants of the SAM-7 “Strela” or “Grail” for NATO, used by the Soviet forces, most probably they are SAM-18 (NATO code-name « Grouse »). This missile can reach a maximal speed of 800 m/sec. It is able to intercept an airplane flying at a speed of 450m/sec at an altitude of 3500 meters. But if the speed of the target plane is inferior to this, it can be reached at a much higher altitude. Still, it is to be excluded that it can reach an airplane flying at an altitude of 10,000 m and at a speed of 250m/sec (900 km/h) such as the Boeing 777 of flight MH17. The characteristics of this airplane imply the use of a heavier missile, and the presumed « culprit » is the weapons system SAM-17 or the older SAM-11, both of these missiles being called « Buk » by the Russians. Note here that if insurgents have recovered a “Buk” TELAR it would have been from a non-active unit and it would then very probably be an out-dated variant of the missile (Probably 9M38M1 or 9M38M2) and firing system.

Yet, consistent information coming from the Ukrainian press and from the site of the Ukrainian Ministry of Defence, establish that the insurgents would not have had at their disposal the “Buk” ground-to-air system (SAM-17 for NATO)[3]. Granted, the declarations of the Ministry of Defence date from June 29th. It is not entirely impossible that the insurgents may have been able to get hold of this type of equipment between June 29th and July 17th, or to refurbish some. Likewise, it is not entirely impossible that the Russian army may have entered the two insurgent provinces. But this would have provoked a very strong international reaction because such a type of movement cannot remain secret, given the magnitude of the means of electronic surveillance deployed in the area (AWACS airplanes of NATO S-3 Sentry flying over the territory of Romania). Yet, NATO has not reacted in any way.

II. Firing procedures

One important point to make about the SAM-11/17 is that it needs the use of two radars. Contrarily to portable missiles such as the SAM-18, it is not guided by infra-red but makes use of what is called a « semi-active radar. » The missile guides itself by means of the waves which are sent by a radar on the ground, emplaced on its firing vehicle (the TELAR), which must therefore permanently beam on the target. But it also needs a control and acquisition radar of the aerial space in order for the target to be designated. The radar for beaming and ecartometry is the model 9S35 (NATO code “Fire Dome”. The control and acquisition radar is the system « Kupol » (NATO code « Snow Drift ») which works in the I/H band[4]. The range of the “Snow Drift” radar is 85km. Moreover, missile batteries are often integrated into units (brigades of anti-aircraft defence) equipped with detection radars of a longer range (250 km).

The firing implies a first acquisition by the « Snow Drift», before the « Fire Dome» radar could be able to enter into action and to guide the missile. The SAM-11/17 is a complex system, which demands a well-trained personnel, with a long training course. The last variant of the missile could be used in an “emergency” mode without the “Fire Dome” radar, but at a considerable loss of range[5]. A transloader vehicle (called TEL) could fire a missile, provided that a TELAR nearby could illuminate the target.

III. Inconsistencies about the location of the crash.

The location of the crash is situated between the towns of Snezhnoye and Torez. The launch itself is alleged to have been done from Chernukhino. This is raising some questions. Why to have emplaced a TELAR here, at more than 50 km from Donetsk or Luhansk ? The missile would have been unable to protect both cities. But this is not the only inconsistency in the US-Ukrainian version.

Actually the airplane, whose trajectory was North-West/South-East, must have been hit much farther to the West. Indeed, taking into account its speed (900 km/h) and its altitude (10,000m), even if it disintegrated in part, it necessarily would have continued on its trajectory. The explosion on the ground shown on the various videos of the crash indicates that a substantial part of the airplane (the take-off weight of which is 300 tons) has crashed. A simple calculation indicates that the airplane was hit 30km away from the place where it crashed. Taking into account the acquisition delays of the missile and the battery serving it, this means that the acquisition itself must probably have occurred 50km to the West of the point of impact (on the airplane’s trajectory). This brings to 80km the distance of the crash. Which would imply that the « Snow Drift» radar would have been situated much farther West than is stated today by the American as well as Ukrainian sources, that is in the territory under Kiev forces control. It is indeed quasi impossible, without a long-range detection radar, to begin an edge-of-range firing process. Otherwise, there would have been no time enough to detect the aircraft, perform electronic capture and launch the missile.

If the MH17 airplane of Malaysian Airlines had been hit by a missile coming from a battery situated where American and Ukrainian sources affirm it to have been located, and operated by the insurgents, the airplane should have crashed 20km to 30 km to the East of its point of impact. In other words, the location of the crash is not consistent with the hypothesis of a missile having been fired from where it is maintained that it was in a scenario where insurgents would have manned the system. In order for it to crash in the location where it did, if the airplane was indeed hit by a « Buk » missile, it must have been hit by a missile fired from the territory controlled by the Ukrainian forces.

IV. Precedents.

We must then bring back to mind preceding incidents of this type. We have the destruction of a Tupolev-154 in 2001 by the Ukrainian forces[6]and the tragedy of flight KAL-007 in the 1980s. In the latter case, it is established that the Soviet forces have confused the Korean plane with an American electronic recognizance plane whose trajectory was quasi-identical. When the recognizance plane turned back, it was taken for an in-flight refueling plane and the Korean airplane was mistaken for the recognizance plane. The incident with the Tupolev-154 occurred over the Black Sea, and was in all likelihood due to a practice firing.

The insurgents have also shot down, beginning of July an Antonov-26 flying at 6500m. But this plane has a cruising speed far slower than the one of the Boeing of flight MH17. It does not exceed 500 km/h. It is perfectly possible that it was shot down by a SAM-18. The fact that its two pilots survived (and used their parachutes), whereas there is no survivor of flight MH17, confirms the fact that the military load of the missile which hit the Antonov was of low power, which indirectly confirms the hypothesis of a SAM-18.

V. A Russian firing?

We must now look at the hypothesis of a Russian firing. This hypothesis implies that the anti-aircraft defence units of Russia operate for the benefit of the insurgents. This would solve the issue of early detection. If a regular unit of Russian air-defence forces has been sent to help Ukrainian insurgents, one could assume it was linked with the air-defence system of Russia and would have benefited from long-range radars. This is possible, but is politically and militarily incoherent and inconsistent. The insurgents have had to suffer from low-flying aerial attacks (helicopters and SU-25 assault planes) and especially from the Ukrainian artillery, which does not hesitate to shell civilian targets (as done in Slaviansk). If Russia wanted to help militarily the insurgents, it could have done so much better by providing anti-battery means (in artillery) or local anti-aircraft defences (using the “Tunguska” system) completely preventing tactical air strikes. The political cost of sending an air-defence unit would be exactly the same than for any other units, and its benefits would have been far lower. A direct involvement of Russian forces would have been detected by NATO ELINT and SIGINT means and would have provoked the same public outcry, be they air defence units or counter-battery artillery units. The military inconsistency of this assumption is obvious. By the way, it’s inconsistent with the political position of Russia, which so far has avoided any direct involvement in support of the insurgency. One cannot of course completely exclude this hypothesis, but it has a very low probability.

VI. A Ukrainian firing ?

We have already said why, if the airplane has indeed been hit by a missile (which is still not entirely established), it is more than probable that this missile has been fired from the Ukrainian side. But then, one may ask why the Ukrainian army would have deployed such a system when the insurgents do not have an air force. Only, one must remember that the Ukrainian artillery bombarded a Russian city at the border, at the beginning of July[7], and that the Russian government has threatened Ukraine with targeted airstrikes. Such strikes would have targeted the resources of the Ukrainian artillery, which are today the principal threat for the insurgents. It is logical then that the Ukrainian army would have deployed means of anti-aircraft defence. Taking the precedents into account, one may wonder whether the Ukrainian Army may have confused flight MH17 with a Russian military flight, coming from Belarus and seeking to take “from the back” the forces deployed against the insurgents. Granted that this is, indeed, only a hypothesis, but it would be coherent with the location of the crash.


[4] ASU sg zrk 9S52M1 Polyana-D4M. Source : http://www.rusarmy.com/pvo/pvo_vsk/su_polyana-d4m1.html  at Missile 
Technology Information System of BGTU VoenMeh

[5] « Зенитныйракетныйкомплекс »БукМ2Э ». Source : http://www.niip.ru/main.php?page=raz_land_ural .OJSCNIIP(Russian). 2005.


Jacques Sapir

Ses travaux de chercheur se sont orientés dans trois dimensions, l’étude de l’économie russe et de la transition, l’analyse des crises financières et des recherches théoriques sur les institutions économiques et les interactions entre les comportements individuels. Il a poursuivi ses recherches à partir de 2000 sur les interactions entre les régimes de change, la structuration des systèmes financiers et les instabilités macroéconomiques. Depuis 2007 il s’est impliqué dans l’analyse de la crise financière actuelle, et en particulier dans la crise de la zone Euro.

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