The MH17 Shootdown (2)
… by Michael Shrimpton
It is now clear that Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 was shot down over Eastern Ukraine, near Grabovo, by the Ukrainian Army, the intent being to blame pro-Russian separatists. My conclusions last week were only provisional, but vital new satellite, radar (particularly from the Ust-Donetsk and Buturinskaya radar stations) and air traffic control (ATC) data is now in, together with some very professional GRU analysis of the photo pushed out by Kiev of a Buk allegedly in separatist hands.
This clearly shows that the photo was taken in the Ukraine, in Krasnoarmeysk to be precise. When faking a photo always make sure that there isn’t an advertising hoarding lurking in the background!
If anyone asks why I was not sure last week, my answer is that intelligence analysis tends to firm up as more facts become available. Contrary to the lies and rumours spread by my competitors (with apologies to Joe Don Baker!), I don’t leap to conclusions. Last week’s article was written 24-hours after the shootdown.
The Rebels’ Buk
It does seem that the rebels were handed an SA-11 Buk system, as part of the set-up. The evidence here is a bit murky, but it looks like the Ukrainians left them an old SA-11 Transporter Erector Launcher (TEL). As I explained last week, they are about as much use as titz on a bull (if you will forgive the expression), when it comes to shooting down airliners at 33,000 feet.
That is because unlike a TELAR (Transporter Erector Launcher And Radar), they don’t have a radar, i.e. you have to fire them blind.
Reporting suggests that the TEL was in a pretty dilapidated state, as you would expect. The Ukrainians would hardly be likely to leave a working SA-11 behind. It also seems to have been an old system, i.e. an early SA-11, and may even have been minus missiles.
Just as significant as the fact that it couldn’t shoot down a passing pigeon is that apparently you need firing codes to launch a Buk, new or old. That makes sense – the Buk is a powerful system, capable as we have seen of blowing a large airliner out of the sky, or at any rate bringing it down. Why would you have a mobile system, which can be driven away, without a safety feature which prevents the missiles being fired except through the chain of command?
We can safely exclude the possibility of the Ukrainians leaving the missile firing codes around for the rebs to find.
SA-11, SA-17 or HQ-16?
There is some doubt about whether the Ukrainians used an SA-11, SA-17 or an HQ (or Hongqi) 16. Allow me to elucidate.
The term Buk can be used to describe both an SA-11 (NATO reporting name Gadfly) or an SA-17 (NATO reporting name Grizzly). The Gadfly was the original system, introduced into service in 1979. The Grizzly is the development of the Gadfly, with the powerful NIIP 9S36 passive phased array radar. It did not enter service until 2008. There is an export version, and some have indeed been exported, e.g. to those nice people the Byelorussians.
What I have not been able to establish is whether the Russians have supplied any SA-17s to the Ukraine, although oddly the Ukrainians did the radar for the Byelorussian Grizzlies, albeit before the DVD’s coup. The literature is conflicting and the Ukrainians are keeping very quiet about it.
There is however a third possibility. The Russians and Chinese have developed a more advanced version of the SA-17 for the PLA Army, Navy and Air Force — remember there are naval variants of the SA-11 and S-17. This version is known as the HQ-16. Not only is it in service with the PLA at this time, they have been practising high-altitude interceptions.
This raises the intriguing possibility that MH-17 was actually shot down by the Chinese, as the Ukrainians would not have any crews trained on the HQ-16, whose instrumentation would probably be marked in Mandarin or Cantonese. There are not a lot of Chinese-speaking Ukrainians, in fact there are not a lot of Chinese restaurants in Kiev.
If MH17 was shot down by an HQ-16 system flown into the Ukraine for the purpose, with a Chinese launch crew, it would cast a flood of light on the selection of a Malaysia Airlines flight. Remember it was the PLA/Navy which shot down MH370.
My money’s on the Chinese at this time. Since President Putin has been reaching out to Peking, that might explain the slight reticence on the part of Moscow on the subject. I would not be surprised if the excellent Russian GRU were way ahead of me on this (they don’t have a day job, after all, and can call up satellite piccies almost at will!) and reached the same conclusion days ago.
Expect Kuala Lumpur to start scaling down their anger/outrage if they also conclude that it was the Chinese. Malaysia is effectively a Chinese client-state. KL were willing to cover up China’s role in shooting down MH370, indeed it looks as though KL are willing to sacrifice poor old Malaysia Airlines, who must be wondering why they now have so much hangar space to rent out. China and the Ukraine are each close to Germany of course.
The Fighter ‘Escort’
Radar evidence suggests that MH17 was ‘escorted’, i.e. forced, into the kill-zone by two Ukrainian fighters. Some reporting suggests that these might have been Su-25 Frogfoots (Frogfeet?). It has been pointed that the Su-25 only has a ceiling of FL250, i.e. 25,000 feet, but the Russian Ministry of Defence, who ought to know, state that it can reach FL330 for a limited period.
One has to be careful with the performance envelope of a ground-attack aircraft like the Su-25. The service ceiling figure will be for an aircraft with full military equipment, such as armor plate. You don’t need armor when shooting down an unarmed airliner. The 25 also has an air refuelling probe, which adds weight and increases drag. I suspect that a lightened Su-25 could easily reach and maintain 33,000 feet.
However, the escort was more likely Su-27s. They are highly agile and powerfully armed. A 777 captain isn’t going to take on a couple of Su-27s. Their role was to make sure that the target airliner followed Kiev ATC’s direction to fly over territory controlled by separatists, so that they could be blamed. Russian satellite overheads show several Buks, or shall we say Buk-like vehicles, positioned close to rebel territory, within range of the interception point.
Carlos, the Spanish Air Traffic Controller
This brings me to the curious case of Carlos, the decent Spanish air traffic controller. For a few precious hours we got a stream of information out of Kiev ATC, via Twitter of all things, although there are worse ways of going public with crucial information. Ignored by the MSM this brave man stated that the Ukrainian security services had taken over the Kiev control tower and seized the controllers’ cellphones, and that Kiev wanted the 777 shot down.
Of course Thames Valley Police would say it was a hoax, but I am not so sure. What impresses me is the level of knowledge displayed at a time when the general public were still in the dark. If it were a hoax one might expect to see statements to that effect coming out of Kiev, since these were damning tweets.
Since then, we have had silence. I am not sure that Carlos is still alive. If he is, he has surely lost his job. At this time I am calling Carlos’s reporting as real, i.e. I don’t think this has been faked, or is a hoax. It might just possibly be an intel set-up, to discredit anyone saying that Kiev shot the plane down, but as indicated I don’t think so.
I would like to see this matter investigated. There aren’t that many air traffic controllers brave enough to tell the truth in an airliner shootdown. Spanish ATC involvement in at least three staged air disasters, including Tenerife, would sensitize informed Spanish air traffic controllers to the possibility of ATC being involved in bringing down a plane deliberately.
It has now emerged that there are small punctures in the fuselage skin. These have puzzled some commentators, but they are exactly what I would expect.
All variants of the Buk use proximity fuzes, where the warhead is radar-detonated. For five years, I have been trying to get the aviation and intelligence communities to accept that AF447 depressurized slowly because its hull had been penetrated by shrapnel from a warhead exploding in close proximity. You always look at the wreckage field in an air disaster investigation – I nearly said ‘accident’ but this was no accident.
I find it significant that the cockpit section landed a short distance away from the wreckage. It may have broken away from the rest of the fuselage near the ground (it’s too close to the main debris field to have broken away at altitude, like PanAm 103). The SA-17/HQ-16 uses semi-active homing, i.e. the missile homed in on MH370’s radar. On nearly all civilian airliners, indeed on all radar-equipped Western airliners, the weather/navigation radar, usually X-Band, is mounted in the nose.
With a target in level flight (TWA800 was climbing) we would expect detonation near the nose, i.e. near the cockpit. Most of the shrapnel damage was probably in the forward part of the fuselage, which would have been significantly weakened. The flight crew may well have been wounded in the attack, although the autopsy results are not in yet. I suspect that the aircraft would still have been able to put out a Mayday message, but for the Ukrainian jamming.
The post-strike maneuvers observed by horrified Russian radar controllers may not have been deliberate, as the aircraft may not have been under control by then. The Cockpit Voice Recorder (CVR) ought to tell us if the crew saw the fighters or the incoming, and had been trying to get a Mayday out.
The Black Boxes
Don’t expect anything to come out of The West on the black boxes. The Flight Data Recorder (FDR) is going to be pretty neutral. It will pretty much tell us what we already know – that the plane was shot down. The CVR is the critical black box, but if it shows Ukrainian involvement, either due to ATC instructions or the crew observing Ukrainian fighters alongside, there is no way that it will be made public.We saw with AF447 how the French were willing to rig the black box data in order to cover up the shootdown, contributing to the two Malaysia Airlines disasters, as official willingness to turn a blind eye to mass murder in the skies simply encourages the Bad Guys.
Farnborough have a track record of covering up sabotage going back to the Comets in 1954. With TWA800 we had to wait for over 15 years before NTSB investigators came clean – after their retirement.
The good news is that it looks like the GRU were able to extract and copy the data before returning the FDR and the CVR to the rebels, for handing over to the Dutch, who in turn handed them over to AAIB, who are Cabinet Office-controlled and have much greater experience of faking ‘accident’ reports than the Dutch.
The Dutch by the way didn’t fake the Tenerife report – they simply didn’t know about the Spanish intelligence officers in the tower, nor the Luftwaffe ground radar unit. They got it wrong, but in good faith.
The AAIB doesn’t do good faith, unless it’s an amateur pilot in a Cessna who’s made the rookie mistake of trying to turn back to the field when his engine has conked out. (You always lose too much altitude in the turn and you are going to be downwind, i.e. basically screwed. If your engine fails soon after take-off stretch your glide, look in the vee between 10 o’clock and 2 o’clock and find somewhere to put her down, forgetting about the runway behind you, which will generally be about as much use as balls on a mermaid, again if you will forgive the expression).
The thought that the Russians have a copy of the CVR tape will give them sleepless nights at AAIB and NTSB. Great. They get far too much sleep anyway for the lives they have cost by covering up airliner sabotage and shootdowns. Never forget that after the failure to identify sabotage as the cause of the Comet Yoke Peter disaster the DVD went ahead and blew Yoke Yoke out of the sky, also with an IED.
Had NTSB gone public with the Iranian missile strike on TWA800 that would have been an end to medium-range missile shootdowns of airliners.
The Air Algerie MD-83
Jury’s still out on this one, but you can forget a medium or long-range missile. Unlike with MH370 or MH17 there were no known hostile systems within range. You can also forget MANPADs, as always when the plane is above FL150, or 15,000 feet.
My provisional conclusion is that the plane was brought down by a haboob, or dust storm. This particular aviation hazard will be known to any reader of Captain W.E. Johns’s splendid Biggles books. Biggles of course was the hero, along with his chums Algy, Lord Bertie Lissie and Ginger, not forgetting Flight Sergeant Smyth and Air Commodore Raymond, their intelligence chief.
Captain Johns, late of the Royal Flying Corps, was the one of the best pilots who ever wrote aviation fiction, let alone for the young. As I point out in Spyhunter he was also the air intelligence officer who recruited Lawrence of Arabia into the Royal Air Force after World War 1, indeed it is more than likely that he encountered a haboob whilst ferrying Lawrence in the war in a Bristol Fighter, one of Bill’s favorite steeds.
Forget the literature which states that haboobs only reach up a few miles. You can get real doozies over the Sahara. More than that you can get dust and sand blown high into the atmosphere above the storm itself, which will not show up on weather radar, i.e. you think you are above the storm and then your engines start flaming out.
Those P & W JT8D-219s on the MD-83 are pretty old bits of kit by modern standards. The JT8D’s first application was on the Boeing 727 and you don’t see many of them around anymore, sadly. The 200 series has a higher bypass ratio and is a lot more powerful, cranking out 21,000 lbs thrust in the -219, but the 8D has always had a slight weather vulnerability. The 80 series ‘9’s have been involved in over 30 hull loss accidents.
Witness reports that the plane crashed in flames have to be viewed with caution. Aviation illiterate witnesses can easily confuse engine fires or flameouts with the whole plane being on fire.
Watching a civilian airliner plummet to the ground is a traumatic experience.
If you will forgive the anecdote, I well remember sitting in the cockpit (in the jump seat) of an RAF VC-10 C Mk 1 at Luqa (Malta), watching with mounting horror as an overloaded old PIA Boeing 720 struggled to get airborne on a hot day. The flight crew were watching this highly marginal piece of aviating with evident concern. I don’t think they were convinced she was going to make it, and indeed if an engine had failed she would have gone straight in. It was pretty alarming, and that was watching from the ground.
I suspect that we will find scoring on the turbine blades consistent with dust, and compressor blade failures, triggering a flame out. If the pilots were not experienced they may have lost control as they went asymmetric, particularly if they were experiencing power loss on the opposite engine. There are not a lot of reserves of power on a heavily laden MD-83. While far from full, thankfully, this plane was not flying light. You have got to regain control pretty quickly, or you’ll be imitating Denzil in the movie and flying tits-up, as the saying goes.
My provisional conclusion is that Flight AH5017 encountered upper atmosphere dust and sand associated with a powerful haboob, leading to a flame out of either No 1 or No2 engine, or both, followed by a loss of control by inexperienced or inadequately trained pilots, with poor visibility and possible disorientation a contributing factor. It might have been an IED, but there no evidence of it at this time.
On a lighter note
May I respectfully congratulate the committee of the Tamil Nadu Cricket Association? They very properly refused to admit Mr Justice Hariparanthaman, who was wearing a dhoti (Great Scott!).
His Honour with respect should have known that as with the MCC Pavilion a jacket and tie is required, and rightly so.
At the risk of sounding like Higgins in Magnum it is pleasing to record that standards are being maintained in at least a part of India!
Classic Movie of the Week – Grand Prix (1966), dir. John Frankenheimer
This is in tribute of course to the great American actor James Garner, who sadly died on July 19. His considerable acting ability is on display in this fine movie, marked by cameo appearances from great Formula One drivers, including Jim Clark, murdered by the DVD only two years later, and Graham Hill, assassinated in 1975.The racing cinematography is superb, and the movie accurately captures the atmosphere of mid-60s Grand Prix racing and its dangers, especially at Monza and Monaco.
It is well worth watching again, if only to remind you of what a great loss James Garner is.
My favorite Garner movie is Space Cowboys, but Grand Prix is probably the more famous. Rest in Peace, James. It will be a long time before you are forgotten.
Michael Shrimpton is a barrister, called to the Bar in London 1983. He is a specialist in National Security and Constitutional Law, Strategic Intelligence and Counterterrorism.
Michael was formerly an Adjunct Professor of Intelligence Studies in what was then the Department of National Security, Intelligence and Space Studies at the American Military University.
Michael’s ground-breaking, 700 page intelligence text “Spyhunter: The Secret History of German Intelligence” was published in England by June Press on April 14th 2014.