MH-17 revisited

October 14, 2015

My trust in the integrity of airplane crash investigative bodies or commissions is limited, especially since the Lockerbie Pan Am Flight 103 investigation, where Libya’s leader, the late Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, was framed and forced to pay for a crime which he didn’t commit.

I further have to admit that I’m biased and always thought that the Ukraine was responsible for the terrible tragedy of the downed Malaysian Boing 777 Flight MH-17. From all the theories about this incident the hypothesis of an attack by a Ukrainian SU-25 fighter jet seemed most plausible and there were several witness reports who appeared to confirm this. Round bullet holes in fragments of the wings (which are not mentioned in the investigation report, while wing fragments mysteriously disappeared) support this theory.

MH17 wreckage 1

The Dutch investigation into the downing of Flight MH-17 comes to a different conclusion and one has to take the findings seriously, though the published report leaves crucial questions unanswered and has the following week points:

The gathering of evidence was uneven and spotty — many pieces of the plane still remain on the ground in Ukraine. It cannot be ruled out that evidence was fabricated or tampered with. A local fire brigade commander, who had collected a lot of wreckage and personal belongings of victims, revealed in a TV-interview that he had to beg Dutch investigators for month to come and collect the material.

The investigation is not transparent, crucial parts, like for instance the coroner reports, are classified.

Evidence from the manufacturer of the Buk missile system Almaz-Antey was not used.

Russian government data was ignored.

Ukrainian Air Force records were not examined. The Ukraine says that military radar systems were down due to maintenance, which is not plausible in a war situation.

Dutch investigators only got data from Ukraine’s air traffic control’s secondary radar, as the primary radar was according to Ukrainian authorities not active.

The investigation was possibly compromised by a central role given to the Ukrainian government which had the power to veto parts of the report which it didn’t like and exclude them from the final version.

US data in the form of radar tracks and satellite images was not examined because it was never offered and never demanded.

On July 20, 2014, US Secretary of State John Kerry declared on NBC’s “Meet the Press” that “we picked up the imagery of this launch. We know the trajectory. We know where it came from. We know the timing. And it was exactly at the time that this aircraft disappeared from the radar.”

The USA had surveillance planes flying in NATO member states Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria, it had signal monitoring ships in the Black Sea, and finally had a low orbit satellite monitoring the war zone. Every ground radar would have been easily identified by its signal and its location pinpointed. In other words, the US spy agencies know exactly which ground radar tracked the Malaysian airliner and where the radar was located at the time of the event.

The fact that the USA never offered data which to a certainty exists is an incriminating fact which devalues the Dutch investigation.

The main finding of the report:

The aeroplane was struck by a 9N314M warhead as carried on a 9M38-series missile and launched by a Buk surface-to-air missile system. This conclusion is based on the combination of the following: The recorded sound peak, the damage pattern found on the wreckage caused by the blast and the impact of the fragments, the bow-tie and cubic shaped fragments found in the cockpit and in the bodies of the crew members in the cockpit, the injuries sustained by three crew members in the cockpit, the analysis of the in-flight break-up, the analysis of the explosive residues and paint found and the size and distinct, bow-tie, shape of some of the fragments.

The conclusion, that it was a Buk missile lies just on three small metal fragments found in the bodies of the pilots, which “although heavily deformed and damaged, had distinctive shapes; cubic and in the form of a bow-tie.” From the published pictures of these metal pieces it is hard to make out any distinctive shape and it is up to ones imagination what form they initially could have had.

Anyway, the missile payload of metal fragments is largely similar between missile types and usually not considered as reliable evidence.

MMH-17 8

Speaking to reporters after a news conference, Dutch Safety Board president Tjibbe Joustra said, pro-Russian rebels were in charge of the area from where the missile which hit MH-17 had been fired. But Joustra also confirmed that the MH-17 was bought down by a Buk surface to air missile, launched from a 320 square kilometer area. An area of this size would have included both rebel and government controlled locations.

Joustra later vaguely suggested in an interview that he has seen US satellite images but is not allowed to talk about them. One wonders why these images have to be kept secret.

Tjibbe Joustra was national coordinator for counter terrorism in the Netherlands, in which function he closely worked with the Dutch secret service and the army. In February 2011 he was appointed president of the Safety Board by the government. The well respected former president Pieter van Vollenhoven said, that  because of this appointment the independence of the Safety Board was in danger.

Ukrainian Buk systems were evidently near the crash area:

The Buk missile is a Russian-made ground-to-air missile which has been produced for decades in various versions. Earlier versions are no longer in use in Russia, but are still in Ukrainian arsenals. Almaz-Antey, the manufacturer of Buk, conducted tests and concluded that only an early version of the missile or a missile from a different system could have been responsible for impact holes in the MH-17 debris.

The experiments were carried out on July 31 and October 7 by detonating 9N314M BUK missile warheads, which are currently deployed by the Russian military. The results of the tests indicate that an explosion from such a missile leaves distinctive “butterfly-shaped” puncture holes due to the shape of the shrapnel.

The particles which hit the plane were cube-shaped, not bow-shaped. The last missile of this type was produced in the Soviet Union in 1986, and its life span is 25 years including all prolongations. All missiles of this type were decommissioned from the Russian Army in 2011. Almaz-Antey noted that in 2005 there were 991 missiles armed with 9M38M1 warheads in arms depots in Ukraine.

MMH-17 5

The Dutch report criticizes Ukraine for not closing the airspace for civilian flights:

“There was sufficient reason for the Ukrainian authorities to close the air space above the eastern part of their country,” because at least 16 Ukrainian military aircraft and helicopters had been shot down in the crash area in the months before the disaster.

About 160 civilian aircraft passed over the area on the day MH-17 was downed until the airspace was closed after the crash, the report found.

The report incriminates Russian authorities for not providing raw data of their radar systems:

“The Russian Federation did not provide the radar data stating that no radar data was saved, but instead provided the radar screen video replay, which showed combined surveillance primary and secondary radar. In the absence of the underlying radar data (so-called raw data), the video information could not be verified”

The Russian Federal Air Transport Agency told the Dutch board that it didn’t save radar data because the incident happened outside Russian territory (not a very credible explanation when every official on every level must have been aware of the disaster and of the necessity to keep all evidence for an eventual investigation).

Both parties use every trick in the book to exonerate their side and smear the opponent. There is too much at stake to allow for nuance and fairness. The claims and counter claims make one’s head spin.

I’m still not convinced about anything. The investigation was politically charged. The cited evidence would be inadmissible in a criminal court. One cannot rule out a “false flag” operation, one cannot rule out that somebody thought this was Putin’s plane, one cannot rule out that pro-Russian rebels or Russian forces mistook the passenger plane for a Ukrainian military transport aircraft, one cannot rule out that a Buk radar initially targeted a nearby Ukrainian SU-25 and inadvertently locked on to the much bigger Boing 777.

I wonder if we ever will know for sure who did it, but one thing I know: War is insanity and weapons are evil, even if they are needed for self defense and survival.

Essential reading

Dutch report summary:

Dutch report:

Objections by John Helmer:

Objections by Robert Parry:
his article contains one error, claiming that the Dutch investigation finds that it was an older version of Buk. The error was discussed and corrected in the comments which are mostly informative and well worth reading. 

Earlier related posts:

MMH-17 4

Corrected and amended on October 15

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