How Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 might have been downed in Ukraine, and how investigators will figure out who might have done it
Both sides in Ukraine’s ongoing civil conflict accuse each other of having shot down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 with a missile, killing all 298 passengers and crew members. United States, Ukrainian and Russian intelligence officials agree that the plane was felled by an advanced surface to air missile, but not on who fired it. The results of the investigation could have far reaching consequences. If it was pro-Russian separatists—as President Obama suggested it might have been Friday—all eyes will be on Russia, which is already facing international opprobrium, and American sanctions, for backing the rebels. Below, six key questions answered about the scope of the investigation, and whether or not the passengers on board knew what was coming.
1. What kind of weapon might have been used?
According to U.S. intelligence officials the plane was most likely hit by a SA-11 Buk launcher, a Russian-made, medium range, radar-guided surface-to-air missile system, though other factors, such as a possible terror attack, will have to be taken into account. “Investigators will have to rule out the possibility of an on-board explosive device,” says John Borkowski, managing Director of the UK-based aviation consultancy MSP Solutions. “It’s highly unlikely, but we won’t have a full picture of what happened until we know for certain what did not happen.” To that end, he says, investigators will be screening passenger manifests even as they inspect the detritus on the ground.
That shouldn’t be a significant issue. While no investigation in a conflict zone is easy, the rebel groups holding the area have said they will grant access. At the crash site investigators will be looking for explosive residue. If the engines alone were targeted, that would indicate that the missile in question was a heat seeking missile, and not the radar-guided Buk. Investigators will also want to know more about the missile’s trajectory. In cases like this, says I.H.S. Jane’s Missiles & Rockets editor Doug Richardson, investigators will reassemble all the gathered plane fragments in order to figure where the warhead was when it exploded. “That will help predict from which direction the missile came.”
2. Who will have jurisdiction when it comes to the investigation?
With a Malaysian airline flying an American-built plane holding 173 Dutch citizens crashing on Russian-backed rebel held territory in Ukraine, there will be plenty of parties vying for control. The incident occurred in Ukrainian airspace, so legally Kiev should be in charge. But the Russians and the rebels are not going to want to see their rivals leading an investigation that could end up implicating Russia. More likely it will be a joint effort, says Borkowski. “Overall responsibility goes to Malaysia, but the Dutch will want to be involved, and the Europeans will want to help. It will be a collaborative effort, under the joint jurisdiction of Kiev and Malaysia.”
3. How will investigators figure out who fired the missile?
Assigning blame won’t be easy, says Justin Bronk, a research analyst at U.K.-based security analysis firm the Royal United Services Institute for Defense and Security Studies. The Ukrainians, the Russians and the Russian-backed rebels all have access to Buk missile systems. But figuring out who pulled the trigger is where the United States can play a role. “The most crucial bit of evidence will come from American satellites,” says Bronk. The U.S. does not say, but it is widely assumed, that its satellites can pick up a missile’s infrared trail and follow it all the way back to its source. “A satellite fix on where the launcher was when the missile was launched is the only way to rebut rebel claims that they didn’t do it,” says Bronk. The problem is that the U.S. may not want to reveal the full capacity of its satellite network, so investigators will still need to focus on material evidence to back up their claims. Even then it will be difficult to prove whether or not the rebels were supplied directly by Russia, or if they obtained the launcher through a third party.
4. Both “black boxes” have been recovered. How important are the flight recorders?
While information gathered from cockpit communications and flight data will help fill in the gaps, the cockpit recorders are unlikely to shed much light on who launched the missile. “Black boxes are useful when you don’t know why the airplane crashed,” says Bronk. “But they won’t pick up a missile coming in at Mach 3, and they won’t tell us what we really want to know, which is who fired it.”
5. Could anyone have tampered with the evidence in the early hours after the crash?
Rebels in the area may have tried, says aviation consultant Borkowski, but it’s not so easy. “Crash experts know what they are looking for, and it would be quite difficult to completely eradicate evidence.” The real concern is the propaganda angle. Within hours of the crash, Ukrainian officials said they had intercepted purported phone calls between commanders and rebels in the field, first exulting over the downing of what was thought to be enemy aircraft, followed by disbelief and then anguish when they realized their mistake. Ukrainian activists also cited similar accounts on rebels’ social media accounts. Though the original blog posts and tweets had been removed, screen grabs of the footage were reposted online. The information could be used to reconstruct the narrative of a terrible mistake, but it is impossible to rule out fabrication.
6. Did the passengers know what happened, and did they suffer?
It’s highly unlikely, says missile expert Richardson. The Buk missile detonates just before hitting its target, releasing shrapnel in a pattern designed to cut through multiple aircraft components at the same time. “The decompression would have been quick, and the passengers would have been knocked out before they knew what was happening.”
With reporting by Mirren Gidda / London