TIME Military

Afghanistan: Awash in Guns, as Well as Narcotics

U.S.-supplied weapons like these M-16s in Kandahar, Afghanistan, often lack proper accounting by both U.S. and Afghan authorities, according to a new investigation SIGAR

Contrary to law, U.S. military lacks data on nearly half the weapons delivered

The bad news out of Afghanistan this week is that the U.S. military’s accounting for the arsenals the Pentagon is giving to Afghan security forces is plagued by “incompatible inventory systems” that generate “missing serial numbers, inaccurate shipping and receiving dates, and duplicate records,” according to a new report from the top U.S. government investigator inside Afghanistan.

The worse news? The problems become “far more severe” once the weapons are in the hands of the Afghan forces. “Given the Afghan government’s limited ability to account for or properly dispose of these weapons, there is a real potential for these weapons to fall into the hands of insurgents, which will pose additional risks to U.S. personnel, the Afghan National Security Forces, and Afghan civilians,” according to John Sopko, the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction.

Sopko and the U.N. have made clear in recent years that the production of opium in Afghanistan is growing with every passing year. Sopko’s latest report, released Monday, makes clear that Afghanistan is also awash in undocumented American-supplied arms.

As the U.S. pulls its combat troops out of Afghanistan by the end of this year, proper accounting and tracking of the arms become critical for Afghan forces to battle the Taliban — and to keep those weapons out of enemy hands. “Taliban fighters are scoring early gains in several strategic areas near the capital this summer, inflicting heavy casualties and casting new doubt on the ability of Afghan forces to contain the insurgency as the United States moves to complete its withdrawal of combat troops,” the New York Times reported Sunday.

“We’re not talking just handguns and M-16s and AK-47s,” Sopko told TIME correspondents over lunch on Friday. “We’re talking some high-powered stuff — grenade launchers, RPGs, machine guns — anything that one person could use.” His new report says the U.S. recorded improperly, or simply failed to record, the serial numbers of 43% of the nearly half-million small arms the U.S. has supplied Afghanistan over the past decade.

Sloppy U.S. record keeping is compounded by Afghanistan’s indifference to the congressionally mandated U.S. oversight of the weapons’ whereabouts. “When we went there and said, ‘We want to see how the Afghans handle this,’ the Afghans refused to let us in to check the weapons” at one facility in Kabul, Sopko said. U.S. military officials told Sopko’s auditors they’d get them in. “We showed up and guess what — everybody was attending a funeral,” Sopko said. “We could not get in. When our guys tried to take pictures, all of a sudden, whoa, the Afghans kicked us out — and our U.S. military couldn’t get us in.”

The problem of untracked weapons, according to excerpts from the 28-page report, is likely to get worse:

As of November 2013, more than 112,000 weapons provided to the Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police exceed requirements in the current [Afghan government requirement] …

excess weapons

The Afghan National Army has 83,184 more AK-47s than needed because, prior to 2010, DOD issued both NATO-standard weapons, such as M-16s, and non-standard weapons, such as AK-47s. After 2010, DOD and the Afghan Ministry of Defense determined that interoperability and logistics would be enhanced if the Afghan National Army used only NATO standard weapons. Subsequently, the requirement was changed. However, no provision was made to return or destroy non-standard weapons, such as AK-47s, that were no longer needed …

This problem of the Afghan National Security Forces having more weapons than needed is likely to be exacerbated as the number of ANSF personnel decreases to lower levels in the coming years. Specifically, the current requirements in the [Afghan government requirement] are based on supporting the ANSF at a surge strength of 352,000 personnel. At the Chicago Summit held in May 2012, the international community and Afghan government approved a preliminary model for a reduction of the ANSF force strength by 123,500 personnel to a total of 228,500 by 2017. [U.S. military commanders in Afghanistan] told us they are still planning on providing weapons at the 352,000 personnel level because that is the number stated in the current [Afghan government requirement].

Part of the accountability problem, the report notes, stems from imposing rules that require schooling in a country without much of it. “Efforts to develop the capabilities of Afghan National Security Forces personnel to manage the central depots,” it says, “have been hindered by the lack of basic education or skills among ANSF personnel.”

TIME Military

Quadruple Threat: Soldier, Sailor, Airman and Marine, All Rolled Into One

Branched out: From Marine, Soldier, Sailor to U.S. Air Force Airman
Now-Air Force Staff Sgt. Jesus Yanez has also served in the Army, Navy and Marines since 1993. Staff Sgt. Evelyn Chavez / Department of Defense

Staff sergeant has served in all four branches of the U.S. military

Despite the Pentagon’s nonstop jawboning about joint operations—where the military’s four sister services cooperate to prevail on the battlefield—those with time in uniform will tell you that each service is like a foreign land to the other three.

That makes Staff Sergeant Jesus Yanez, currently manning checkpoints at the biggest U.S. base in Afghanistan, a genuine world traveler.

Since 1993, he has served in the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines.

His skills pay dividends when he’s spending his day off getting pizza or walking around with military colleagues at Bagram air base, just outside Kabul. After his buddies spy an American sailor wearing foreign-looking insignia they don’t understand, the questions begin:

“They ask me, `What rank is that?’ And I’ll say `He’s a petty officer,’ and they ask: `What’s a petty officer?’” referring to the Navy’s non-commissioned officers. “They’ll ask me, `Do you salute warrant officers?’”—those in the Army between enlisted and officers—“and I’m like, `Yes, Army warrant officers get a salute.’”

But military life’s not all about rank. “The food in the Air Force is much better than in the Army, Navy or Marine Corps,” says Yanez, who is in the middle of a five-month tour in Afghanistan with the Air Force—and enjoying every bite. Marine chow, not so much: “You could throw a biscuit into the wall and make a hole through it.” But the Marines, he concedes, score high elsewhere: “Their uniforms are probably the best in the military.”

Yet he says he has learned from each of the services. “In the military, you’re like a family,” Yanez says. “It doesn’t matter what branch you’re in, if something happens to you, everybody’s going to be there for you. And the military gave me an education—I have an associate’s, bachelor’s and a master’s.”

Yanez as a Marine 20 years ago. USMC

Yanez, 39, hails from El Paso, Texas. He served as an active-duty Marine from 1993-97. “They always say the Marine Corps’ boot camp is the hardest one to go through,” he remembers thinking. “In my mind, when I was in high school, I’d think if I could be a Marine, I could do anything.”

He left the corps and spent a couple of years in the civilian world. “After awhile, I missed the military, just in general,” Yanez recalls. The single father of two wanted to stay in El Paso. He was looking for a reserve slot, and checked out, but rejected, the El Paso Marine Reserve unit. “I didn’t want to do artillery,” he says of their specialty.

So he ended up in a nearby Navy Reserve unit. “The Navy Reserve had a master of arms program, which is almost like an MP [military police], and that when I enlisted,” he says. “I wanted to pursue a career in law enforcement.” But Yanez says he found the Navy too informal—“I wasn’t used to the first-name basis at the reserve unit”—especially following his Marine service.

He traded the Navy for the Army in late 2001. “After September 11, I just felt that I needed to go back and do my part for my country,” he says. But he spent time stateside after his new reserve unit already had deployed to Iraq, which Yanez found disappointing. “The opportunity for me to deploy with the Army wasn’t there,” he says. In his reserve service, Yanez generally has drilled one weekend a month, with a two-week block of training annually.

But while working as a civilian Army police officer at El Paso’s Fort Bliss, he heard from Air Force reservists there that they routinely deployed overseas. So in 2006, he joined the Air Force as a member of the Texas Air National Guard’s 204th Security Forces Squadron, and spent part of 2010 in Iraq.

“It sort of just happened, being in all four branches,” Yanez, with the 455th Expeditionary Base Defense Squadron at Bagram, recently told an Air Force public-affairs officer. “I didn’t even think about it until one of my friends mentioned it.” Pentagon officials said Thursday that Yanez’s quad-service heritage is “highly unusual,” but don’t have data detailing just how rare it is.

Yanez doesn’t boast of his unusual military background. “I don’t have any stickers on my vehicle—I don’t even have any tattoos,” he says. But something betrays his past, at least to keen observers. “People always ask me, even though I’m in an Air Force uniform, if I was a Marine,” he says. “Because I still have a high and tight flattop” haircut. “Saves me a lot of money.”

One more thing. Yanez doesn’t want those in the Coast Guard thinking he’s slighting them. Coasties always feel dissed when people talk about the nation’s four military services, because Coast Guard personnel insist they’re the fifth. The Coast Guard is part of the Department of Homeland Security, but can be commanded by the Department of Defense in times of war. “Maybe I’ll get a job with the Coast Guard,” he says, “when I retire.”

TIME Terrorism

MH17 Ukrainian Crash: Dusting for Fingerprints

The U.S. embassy in Ukraine posted this graphic Tuesday, suggesting how pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine downed Malaysia Airlines Flight 17. U.S. government

Both sides believe a missile downed the jet, but determining whose missile will be tougher

Missiles don’t shoot down airliners. People do. But determining whose finger pushed the button that sent a guided rocket into MH17 is a lot tougher than determining that it was a missile that brought the Boeing 777 down, killing all 298 aboard.

While the smoke has cleared from the crash site of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, and its victims begun their long journey home, much smoke—and some mirrors—remain for those seeking to determine culpability. U.S. officials said Tuesday that their latest intelligence suggests that pro-Russian separatists acted alone, without Moscow’s help.

But that’s a distinction without a difference. The Russian government has fanned and fueled pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine for months. There’s little chance the rebels would have been able to shoot down the jet—if indeed that is what happened—without Moscow’s support. Implicit in that latest assessment is Washington’s eagerness to avoid pushing Russian President Vladimir Putin into a corner. Washington is trying to entice him into abandoning his support for the separatists.

Amid the ferocious propaganda battle, powered by dueling briefings and instant analysis on social media, it’s important to remember both sides have been caught fudging before.

Moscow took nearly a week before finally acknowledging it shot down Korean Airlines Flight 007 in 1983, killing all 269 on board. The U.S. denied early Soviet reports that Moscow had shot down a U-2 spy plane in 1960—until it produced Francis Gary Powers a week after his plane was shot down (and the weapons of mass destruction used to justify the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq—weapons that remain MIA—are often cited when questioning the trustworthiness of U.S. intelligence claims).

It has been nearly a week since the plane crashed. The pair of black boxes, at last in the hands of Malaysian authorities, are unlikely to offer many clues. The crew aboard the plane likely had no knowledge they were under attack, so there’s probably no conversation on the cockpit voice recorder detailing what happened. It’s also likely that the flight data recorder will show everything aboard the plane was normal—until it shut down as the plane disintegrated.

There is growing evidence that some kind of missile warhead peppered the plane with shrapnel. An anti-aircraft missile’s warhead generally shatters as it comes within 100 yards or so of its target, flinging hundreds of high-velocity shards of shrapnel into it. They cripple the plane’s flaps and engines, severe fuel lines and can lead to its near-instantaneous destruction.

The shrapnel plays into both competing narratives. The Russians have suggested, without offering proof, that a Ukrainian Su-25 may have fired the missile that brought the plane down. The U.S., showing how much remains unknown, didn’t dismiss the Russian claim. “I haven’t seen any information that indicates a Ukrainian jet,” State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said Tuesday. “We’re still looking into it, obviously. The president of Ukraine has said there was not, but again, we like to independently verify things.”

Russian officials also indicated that their own intelligence shows that Ukrainian missile systems were in the area and could have downed MH17. Moscow has argued that photographs of purported Russian missile systems inside Ukraine, and taped phone calls implicating Ukrainian rebels and their Russian allies in the shootdown, have been doctored, or are from different times and different places than the shootdown and its aftermath July 17.

The rest of the world—the U.S., Europe and Ukraine—believes that an SA-11 surface-to-air missile—fired either by pro-Russian separatists or Russian troops themselves, from rebel-held territory in eastern Ukraine—is responsible. Chemical testing of any explosive residue left on the remnants of the plane—or the missile—might pinpoint the kind of missile involved.

Smarting under increasing global pressure, Russian generals went on the offensive at a briefing Monday where they claimed a Ukrainian fighter jet flew within two miles of MH17 despite Kiev’s contention that no other aircraft were close by. And if an SA-11 Buk missile downed the jet, Lieutenant-General Andrei Kartopolov said, it didn’t come from Russia. Moscow hasn’t given pro-Russian Ukrainian separatists missiles, he added, “or any other kinds of weapons or military hardware” (that claim set off howls of laughter from inside U.S. intelligence and military circles).

“According to the U.S. declarations, they have satellite images that confirm the missile was launched by the rebels. But nobody has seen these images,” Kartopolov said. “If the American side has pictures from this satellite, then they should show the international community.”

If Monday’s Russian briefing—complete with radar images flashing across giant screens—was state of the art, Tuesday’s U.S. posting of a graphic designed to show how the shootdown happened was crude. The American embassy in Ukraine posted the sketch, which quickly turned up on cable television. But it listed no sources for what it supposedly showed, and was widely ridiculed online for its lack of provenance and authority.

“It’s commercial imagery that’s available commercially,” the State Department’s Harf said Tuesday. “Flight paths are obviously publicly available information.” But it’s the alleged trajectory of the missile that’s key. Who added that? “I don’t think anyone here did,” Harf said. “I think this is just something we’ve been using internally inside the broader USG [U.S. government] who’s been talking about this.”

Ukraine and Russia were involved in a similar case more than a decade ago. In 2001, Kiev belatedly acknowledged that its military mistakenly shot down a Siberia Airlines plane over the Black Sea, killing all 78 aboard.

Coming less than a month after the 9/11 attacks, Russians initially suspected Chechen rebels for the shootdown. Back when Moscow and Kiev had warmer relations, the Russians declared that U.S. intelligence suggesting a wayward Ukrainian missile was to blame was “unworthy of attention.”

Putin, no less, denied that the plane could have been downed by a Ukrainian missile. “The weapons used in those exercises had such characteristics that make it impossible for them to reach the air corridor through which the plane was moving,” he said shortly after the shootdown, while in his first of three terms as Russian president. So were terrorists responsible? “The final judgment of that and the cause of the tragedy,” he said, “can only be made by the experts after very careful study.”

Ultimately, such study concluded that a Russian-built Ukrainian S-200 flew past its target drone after a second missile destroyed it. But instead of self-destructing, the S-200 locked on to the civilian airliner 150 miles away and blew it out of the sky.

TIME Terrorism

MH17 Ukraine Crash: Russian Roulette Revisited

298 Crew And Passengers Perish On Flight MH17 After Suspected Missile Attack In Ukraine
Bodies of those aboard MH17 alongside a road in eastern Ukraine on Sunday. Brendan Hoffman / Getty Images

Putin's foot-dragging turning the horrible vile

General Secretary Yuri Andropov’s Soviet Union played Russian roulette in the early morning hours of Sept. 1, 1983, when an Su-15 interceptor shot down Korean Air Lines Flight 007, killing all 269 aboard. He died six months later, and his Soviet Union died six years after him, dragged into history, in part, by the horror the shootdown represented, and what it told the rest of the world about the trigger-puller.

Three decades later, Russian president Vladimir Putin seems to be playing the same dangerous game, as pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine apparently used an SA-11 missile system to blast Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 from the skies, killing all 298 on board an Amsterdam-to-Kuala Lumpur trip.

That was bad enough. It got worse over the weekend as intelligence surfaced suggesting that the SA-11 wasn’t one that the separatists had captured from Ukraine’s arsenal last month. Instead, SA-11 launchers, and perhaps their operators, appear to have been “on loan” from Russian military units just across the border.

As world outrage at Putin continued to rise Sunday, the Russian leader seemed content to play another round of Russian roulette. But his actions make clear that he added a second bullet to his revolver’s cylinder before spinning it anew.

Within hours of the shootdown, U.S. and Ukrainian intelligence sources believe that three SA-11 units were moved from rebel-held territory in eastern Ukraine across the border onto Russian soil. Meanwhile, some of the dead—including nearly 200 Dutch citizens, but no Russians or Ukrainians—continued to rot in the wheat and sunflower fields. Drunken separatists, according to Secretary of State John Kerry, have been loading other bodies onto trucks. Putin, by all accounts, is taking pains to ensure that any investigation into who shot down the Boeing 777 won’t get to the scene in a major way until the trail has grown cold.

KAL 007 contributed to the end of the Soviet Union, highlighting its bloodlust as well as its moral bankruptcy. Its denials and obfuscations—first the Soviets denied shooting it down, then they defended it because they deemed KAL 007 to be a spy plane—generated disbelief in many corners of the globe. President Reagan declared it “an act of barbarism,” and Soviet hammer-and-sickle flags were burned. Andropov & Co. barred search vessels from the area.

“Andropov, notwithstanding whatever he actually may have believed about Soviet responsibility, was forced onto the defensive and evidently felt compelled to justify the USSR’s actions at all costs,” the CIA’s official recounting of the episode said. “The US follow-on campaign at the UN and in other channels to embarrass and isolate the USSR in the international community undoubtedly contributed to Moscow’s penchant to see an anti-Soviet plot. In the Soviet view, a campaign of this scope and magnitude that just happened to dovetail with the Reagan administration’s moral critique of the USSR must have been more than simply a chance opportunity seized by Washington in the heat of the moment. President Reagan’s decision to use the KAL 007 shootdown to persuade Congress to support his requests for increased defense spending and the new MX missile pointed in the same direction, in Moscow’s view.”

RUSSIA-USSR-COMMUNISM-KGB-DISSIDENTS-ANDROPOV
Visitors view an exhibition dedicated to the former Communist leader and KGB head, Yuri Andropov, in Moscow, on July 6, 2014. Nostalgic about the might of vanished Soviet empire, Russia marked the 100th anniversary of Andropov’s birth with exhibitions and television films glorifying the Soviet leader who was in charge when his nation’s military shot down KAL 007 in 1983. KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV / AFP / Getty Images

But don’t look for a quick change in Putin’s attitude. Frank Carlucci, who served Reagan as defense secretary and national security adviser, recalled riding in the back seat of a car through Ukraine with Soviet defense minister Dmitri Yazov after the KAL 007 shootdown:

All of a sudden Yazov turned to me and said, `Why did you send that Korean airliner to spy on us?’ I said, `Jesus, I didn’t. We didn’t send an airliner to spy on you. Why the hell did you shoot it down? It was a stupid thing to do. You know we don’t use airliners to spy. We can get all the spying we need from satellites.’ He said, `Yes. That’s why I don’t understand why you sent the airliner to spy on us.’ It was one of these circular arguments.

The KAL 007 shootdown, piled atop the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the declaration of martial law in Soviet-puppet Poland, and Reagan’s increased defense spending topped with his “Star Wars” missile-defense program, cleared the way for the rise of Mikhail Gorbachev, the vanguard of a new class of Soviet leader who presided over the end of the Soviet Union.

Yet Putin’s hero isn’t Gorbachev, but Andropov. As the head of Russian intelligence, Putin “laid flowers on Andropov’s grave, and dedicated a plaque to his hero inside the Lubyanka, the KGB’s notorious Moscow headquarters,” Russia expert and columnist Anne Applebaum has written. “Later, as president, he ordered another plaque placed on the Moscow building where Andropov had lived and erected a statue to him in a St. Petersburg suburb. But Putin wanted to restore more than Andropov’s name. He also, it seems, wanted to restore the old KGB boss’s way of thinking.”

Since Thursday, to the shock of those who haven’t been paying attention before that sad day, he has been doing just that.

TIME Terrorism

Malaysia Airlines Ukraine Crash: A Working Theory of the Shootdown

A dangerous missile, and a dangerous lack of training on how to use it

+ READ ARTICLE

The U.S. military’s top commander in Europe spoke last month at the Pentagon of Russians training pro-Russian separatists from Ukraine. “What we see in training on the east side of the border is big equipment, tanks, APCs [armored personnel carriers], anti-aircraft capability,” Air Force General Philip Breedlove said, referring to the Russian side of the Russian-Ukrainian border. “And now we see those capabilities being used on the west side of the border”—inside Ukraine.

“Anti-aircraft capability”? Did that mean that Russian separatists inside eastern Ukraine had shot down a Ukrainian helicopter a week earlier, killing nine?

“It’s a very good likelihood,” Breedlove responded, “but we haven’t tied the string directly together yet.”

There’s also no hard proof yet that Russian separatists inside eastern Ukraine downed Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 on Thursday, killing all 298 aboard. But there is a very good likelihood.

Russian and Ukrainian forces also have the kind of Buk missiles believed to have shot down MH17. A Russian press report said a Ukrainian Buk missile battery near Donetsk shot the airliner down. But the rebels have no air force, which makes one wonder what Ukrainian forces would have been aiming at (they have also failed to shoot at Russian aircraft that have crossed into Ukrainian airspace).

A pair of Russian batteries was just across the border. But it’s highly unlikely that a Russian unit went rogue.

Evidence is steadily mounting—training, equipment, purported post-shootdown telephone transcripts—that the separatists are responsible. While some elements may prove incorrect, the accumulating weight points at Russian separatists inside eastern Ukraine as the ones who fired the missile.

But that doesn’t absolve Moscow. If poorly-trained separatists fired the missile, it shows the dangerous game Russian president Vladimir Putin is playing. He and his nuclear-armed government have been fanning pro-Russian nationalistic fervor in eastern Ukraine, and providing them with weapons, intelligence and other support, U.S. officials say. Apparently, the rebels just got a little out of hand.

President Obama made clear Friday who he holds responsible, without saying so. “Over the last several weeks Russian-backed separatists have shot down a Ukrainian transport plane and a Ukrainian helicopter, and they claimed responsibility for shooting down a Ukrainian fighter jet,” he said. “Moreover, we know that these separatists have received a steady flow of support from Russia. This includes arms and training. It includes heavy weapons. And it includes anti-aircraft weapons.”

Pentagon officials believe MH17 was most likely shot down by a Buk Mk.2, which NATO calls an SA-11 Gadfly. Each SA-11 launch vehicle carries four 19-foot-long missiles atop a turntable that can hit targets at 60,000 feet. While the 35-year old design has been upgraded, it lacks some of the tracking capabilities of Russia’s newer systems.

“The SA-11, which is the one we believe was used to down Flight 17, is a sophisticated piece of technology,” Rear Admiral John Kirby, the Pentagon spokesman, said Friday. “It strains credulity to think that it could be used by separatists without at least some measure of Russian support and technical assistance.”

Whoever was operating the missile mistakenly believed that what turned up on their radar screen was a Ukrainian plane, U.S. defense officials theorize. In the past week, four Ukrainian aircraft have been shot down, including an Antonov AN-26 cargo plane flying at 21,000 feet on Monday. In two of those cases, the Ukrainian government believes the missiles involved were fired from inside Russia.

Russian media reported in June that pro-Russian separatists captured at least one Buk missile system. “The Donetsk resistance fighters have captured an anti-aircraft military station,” a Russian television network said three weeks ago. “The skies above Donetsk will now be protected by the BUK surface-to-air missile complex,” said the headline on the channel’s website.

There are plenty of military veterans in the region capable of operating the Buk system, U.S. officials believe, although the shoot down may have exposed just how little they really understood. That flaw—and the fact that the doomed airliner appears to have strayed north of the standard air corridor and ended up flying right over rebel-held territory—seems to have made the shootdown possible.

“Some separatists have received some training in these vehicle-borne systems,” Kirby said. “There’s no question about that.”

Yet they may not have been trained sufficiently. “The flight was transmitting its assigned transponder code corresponding with its flight plan, and flight tracking data was publicly available on the internet,” Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the UN, told the Security Council Friday. “There was nothing threatening or provocative about MH17.”

But while a complete Buk missile battery consists of three vehicles—one carrying the missiles, one for the radar that guides them, and one for the missile commander—the missile-launching vehicle does have its own radar and can launch missiles by itself. If that happened, its crew of three or four may have been unable to, or never trained in, reviewing the airliner’s transponder data declaring their target to be a civilian airliner.

“Its built-in radar is normally used to track the target being engaged, but can be operated in a target-detection mode, allowing it to autonomously engage targets that were present in the radar’s forward field of view,” says IHS Jane’s Missile & Rockets editor Doug Richardson. “Although it has its own Identification Friend or Foe (IFF) system, this is only able to establish whether the target being tracked is a friendly aircraft. It is the electronic equivalent of a sentry calling out ‘Who goes there?’ If there is no reply, all you know is that it is not one of your own side’s combat aircraft. It would not give you a warning that you were tracking an airliner.”

Or attacking one.

TIME Terrorism

Malaysia Airlines Ukraine Crash: Fateful Errors, Fatal Decisions

Spectators watch a Russian "Buk" missile system being driven during the "Russia Arms Expo 2013" 9th international exhibition of arms, military equipment and ammunition, in the Urals city of Nizhny Tagil
Spectators watch a Russian "Buk" missile system being driven during the "Russia Arms Expo 2013" 9th international exhibition of arms, military equipment and ammunition, in the Urals city of Nizhny Tagil, Russia on Sept. 25, 2013. Sergei Karpukhin—Reuters

Common thread in shootdowns is multiple mistakes

It’s looking increasingly likely that Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was shot down over rebel-controlled eastern Ukraine Thursday by a Russian-built Buk missile, killing all 298 people on board. While that’s yet unconfirmed, U.S. officials, reviewing satellite data and other intelligence, believe a missile downed the airplane, and that pro-Russian separatists inside Ukraine are the most likely to have fired the killer shot.

We have seen this horror movie before.

It began with a Soviet warplane shooting down Korean Air Lines Flight 007 on September 1, 1983. The Soviets initially denied any involvement, but ultimately conceded one of its Su-15 interceptors had shot down the plane, killing all 269 aboard.

With KAL 007, errors piled atop one another to make a seeming impossibility distressingly real. KAL 007’s key error was an improper setting on its autopilot that caused it to stray off course and into Soviet airspace near the Kamchatka Peninsula.

Major Genadi Osipovich fired the R-8 missile that downed the plane without first telling his ground-based commanders that he saw the “two rows of windows” that indicated it was a Boeing 747. He compounded the plane’s error by not sharing that information. “I did not tell the ground that it was a Boeing-type plane,” he told a Russian reporter in 1991. “They did not ask me.”

Nearly five years later after the downing of KAL 007, the U.S. Navy shot down an Iranian airliner flying across the Persian Gulf. The crew of the guided-missile cruiser USS Vincennes incorrectly identified Iran Air Flight 655—an Airbus A300—for a much smaller Iranian-flown but U.S.-built F-14. The ship’s crew erred despite the fact that the plane was broadcasting its civilian identity and flying a regularly-scheduled flight on a regularly-scheduled route between the Iranian coastal city of Bandar Abbas and Dubai. All 290 aboard died in the July 3, 1988 shoot down shortly after takeoff for what was to have been a 28-minute flight.

Thursday’s shoot down, if that’s what it turns out to be, also had two key errors. The first was the decision to fly across eastern Ukraine, given the civil war roiling that part of the country. In recent days, Russian separatists have reportedly shot down four Ukrainian airplanes near the city of Donetsk. “The Donetsk resistance fighters have captured an anti-aircraft military station,” a Russian television network said three weeks ago. “The skies above Donetsk will now be protected by the BUK surface-to-air missile complex,” said the headline on the channel’s website. Following Thursday’s crash, many airlines changed flight routes to keep their aircraft away from Ukraine.

A total of 857 innocent people died in the three crashes.

How such accidents can be prevented depends on why they happened. If the Soviets truly believed KAL 007 was a spy plane masquerading as a civilian airliner, they still might have shot it down. The same series of mistakes made aboard the Vincennes might yield the same result today; no commander wants to be at the helm of the next USS Stark, which was attacked by Iraq in 1987, killing 37 sailors. And if Russian separatists fired the missile that downed MH17 thinking it was a Ukrainian aircraft, it’s tough to see how it might have been prevented.

Better training would help; more trust would help even more. Firing missiles is a lot like capital punishment. Mistakes can’t be undone.

What’s surprising about the tragedies (assuming Thursday’s was a shoot down) is that each was carried out by a military force—one in the air, one on the sea, and Thursday’s on land. While pro-Russia Ukrainian separatists may have downed MH17, it takes a fair amount of training—and a sophisticated missile system—to blow a commercial airliner flying at 33,000 feet out of the sky.

The U.S. and other nations have been worried for decades that portable, shoulder-fired missiles would end up in the hands of terrorists who would use them to down airliners. Surely, that remains a real concern. But sometimes, as we apparently learned again on Thursday, the wrong hands belong to bodies wearing military uniforms.

TIME Terrorism

Malaysia Airlines Ukraine Crash: Protecting Airliners from Missile Attacks

A US Air Force officer climbs onto his B
U.S. Air Force C-17 cargo planes, like this one at a Russian air base in 2011, are protected by onboard jammers, a capability not on most civilian airliners. Dmitry Kostyukov—AFP/Getty Images

The hardware exists, but it's costly

Air Force One is protected by electronic jammers from most missiles, likely including the one that may have shot down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over the Russian-Ukrainian border Thursday.

Why aren’t commercial airliners protected, too?

This has been a debate ever since the development of small, shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles like the U.S. Stinger nearly 35 years ago, and the resulting fears that such weapons could fall into the wrong hands.

It may cost the airline industry billions of dollars, but Pentagon officials spoke of the need for such defenses in 2002, after a pair of Russian-made shoulder-launched Strela-2 missiles narrowly missed an Israeli 757 as it took off from the Kenyan city of Mombassa with 271 aboard. MH17 may have been downed by a bigger, radar-guided missile, in which case defenses against shoulder-fired heat-seeking missiles wouldn’t have worked.

But defeating missiles is a problem the Pentagon has been grappling with for some time: In 1999, the Defense Department told Congress the biggest threat to its cargo planes was shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles like the ones fired in Mombassa. In 2002, the Pentagon awarded a $23 million contract to outfit four Air Force C-17 cargo planes with sophisticated equipment to protect them from Stingers, SA-7s and other portable heat-seeking missiles favored by terrorists.

“That’s more than $5 million per plane,” an Air Force officer said at the time. “Once the first U.S. commercial airliner is shot down—and U.S. airlines rush to install these systems on their own planes—the price will drop to $2 million or $3 million per plane.”

Not exactly a bargain, but some U.S. defense officials have long believed that such systems will have to become standard equipment aboard U.S. airliners. That 2002 system was an updated version of the AN/AAQ-24 (V) Nemesis, which protects both big transports (apparently including Air Force One) and military helicopters. Built by the Northrop Grumman Corp., it is known as the Large Aircraft Infrared Countermeasures — LAIRCM — system, and plans were to outfit the hundreds of cargo planes and tankers operated by the U.S. Air Force.

LAIRCM automatically detects, tracks and jams infrared missiles, sending a high-intensity laser beam into the missile’s seeker to disrupt its guidance system. No action is required by the crew. The pilot simply is informed that a threat missile was detected and jammed. “Inexpensive, yet lethal, surface-to-air missiles have proliferated around the globe and unfortunately are in the hands of our potential adversaries,” Arnold Welch, vice president for Infrared Countermeasures Programs at Northrop Grumman’s Defensive Systems Division in Rolling Meadows, Illinois, said at the time. “It is essential that our military pilots and air crews have this sophisticated type of protection in order to perform their missions and return safely.”

Early reports from Ukraine suggest the plane may have been downed by a tracked Russian-built Buk missile system. Flying at about 33,000 feet, the airliner was beyond the range of most man-portable missiles. The Buk missile uses radar to guide itself to its target, unlike the heat-seeking Stinger. Planes trying to elude radar-guided missiles can use various electronic jammers and disperse clouds of foil-like chaff to confuse the missile’s radar by confusing it with multiple targets.

Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 Graphic
Source: FlightAware

The threat of SAM attacks on U.S. airliners was acknowledged in an FAA study in 1993, which noted that as passenger and baggage screening became more rigorous, the chances of missile strikes would rise. The U.S. government’s interest in the problem followed its decision to supply Afghan mujahideen fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan—whose ranks included the late Osama bin Laden and many of his al-Qaeda lieutenants—with about 1,000 Stinger missiles in the 1980s. Pentagon officials credit the Stinger with downing about 250 Soviet aircraft.

The discovery of a Strela-2 (dubbed the SA-7 by NATO) missile tube near a Saudi military base used by U.S. warplanes in 2001 prompted the FBI to alert U.S. law-enforcement agencies to be on the lookout for any signs that terrorists were planning shoulder-fired missile attacks. While the missile found in Saudi Arabia remained in its tube, burn marks suggested a bungled effort to fire it, U.S. officials said. A Sudanese with possible al Qaeda links was arrested in connection with the missile.

“The FBI possesses no information indicating that al-Qaeda is planning to use ‘Stinger’ missiles or any type of MANPAD (MAN Portable Air Defense) weapons system against commercial aircraft in the United States,” the 2001 FBI warning said. “However, given al-Qaeda’s demonstrated objective to target the U.S. airline industry, its access to U.S. and Russian-made MANPAD systems, and recent apparent targeting of U.S.-led military forces in Saudi Arabia, law enforcement agencies in the United States should remain alert to potential use of MANPADs against U.S. aircraft.”

TIME Military

Lawyer: Bergdahl ‘Deeply Grateful’ to Obama

Bergdahl Being Treated At U.S. Military Hospital In Germany
Bowe Bergdahl, who was held by the Taliban for nearly five years before being released in May. U.S. Army / Getty Images

Army sergeant held by Taliban believes President’s decision “saved his life,” his attorney Eugene Fidell tells TIME

No one’s heard anything yet from Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, the former prisoner-of-war freed in a May 31 swap for five Taliban leaders after nearly five years as a Taliban prisoner. He hasn’t spoken to the press—by all accounts, he hasn’t even spoken to his parents. But, in typical American fashion, he has retained—and spoken to—an attorney.

“Sergeant Bergdahl is deeply grateful to President Obama for having saved his life,” Eugene Fidell, retained a week ago by the soldier, told TIME on Wednesday.

Fidell has traveled to Texas—where Bergdahl has returned to active duty at a desk job in San Antonio following his “re-integration” back into the service—to discuss with his client the investigation into the circumstances leading up to Bergdahl’s abduction in 2009. The attorney declined to offer any insights into Bergdahl’s mood, legal defense, or relationship with his family. Bergdahl also has an Army lawyer.

Eugene Fidell Yale

But Fidell did suggest the case—now being investigated by a two-star Army major general—is more complicated than he originally thought. That’s saying something: Fidell is a prominent military-law expert who lectures at Yale Law School on the topic, and former president of the National Institute of Military Justice.

“Before I was in the case, I was skeptical that the investigation called for a major general,” Fidell says. “I thought that a talented lieutenant colonel would be more than enough horsepower—I thought it was overkill.” Army officials say Major General Kenneth Dahl has yet to interview Bergdahl.

Fidell said he has changed his mind as he has dived into the case. “Based on what I now know about the complexity of the issues, which are in a number of spheres that I’m not going to get into, I understand why the Army thought that a general officer should be involved,” Fidell adds. “I now understand why management thought that it was a good idea to have a two-star officer doing this investigation.”

The lawyer, who has taken the case pro bono—without pay—declined to discuss the specifics that led him to change his mind. But Bergdahl’s case is complex: according to the soldiers with whom he served, Bergdahl simply walked away from his combat outpost in June 2009 before being captured by the Taliban along the Afghan-Pakistan border. Some of those troops have called Bergdahl a deserter, and alleged that fellow soldiers died hunting for him.

Questions also surround the Army’s decision to allow Bergdahl to enlist, two years after he washed out of Coast Guard boot camp after only 26 days. And lawmakers on Capitol Hill have criticized Obama for giving up five senior Taliban leaders for Bergdahl, now 28.

Rep. Rob Wittman, R-Va., told TIME on Tuesday that he doesn’t believe the swap was in the nation’s interest. “We were duty bound to bring him back, but I think we’re duty bound to bring him back in the right way,” said the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee’s readiness subcommittee. “What other opportunities were there for us to secure Sergeant Bergdahl’s release besides releasing these five high-ranking Taliban officials?…we did increase the risk to Americans and American interests by releasing these five.”

Rear Admiral John Kirby, the Pentagon spokesman, said that Bergdahl is now free to come and go like any other soldier. “He’s free to leave base…he’s not under any particular restrictions,” Kirby said. “And I would remind you, he’s not been charged with anything.”

TIME Military

Building a Better Bullet

DARPA's Extreme Accuracy Tasked Ordnance (EXACTO) bullet may be precise, but its artist's rendering of the round is pretty vague.
DARPA's Extreme Accuracy Tasked Ordnance (EXACTO) bullet may be precise, but its artist's rendering of the round is pretty vague. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency

The Pentagon wants the capability for its snipers, making their goal of "one shot, one kill" even more likely

Accuracy trumps terror every time. For good or for ill, that is why Israeli missiles have killed at least 160 Palestinians, while Palestinian rockets have killed zero Israelis. While killing innocents as well as terrorists, the Israeli strikes are precise. So is its Iron Dome anti-missile system, which appears to be doing a pretty good job destroying Palestinian rockets headed for Israeli population centers. Meanwhile, the Palestinians are left to launch unguided rockets, hoping to get lucky and kill Israelis.

Along the same lines, imagine if you could transform a dumb bullet into a guided missile?

That’s what the Pentagon did earlier this year, successfully firing .50-caliber bullets that steered themselves in mid-flight. It has just released a video trumpeting the tip-top targeting of its Extreme Accuracy Tasked Ordnance (EXACTO) program.

“This video shows EXACTO rounds maneuvering in flight to hit targets that are offset from where the sniper rifle is aimed,” the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency says. “EXACTO’s specially designed ammunition and real-time optical guidance system help track and direct projectiles to their targets by compensating for weather, wind, target movement and other factors that could impede successful hits.”

The Pentagon wants the capability for its snipers, making their goal of “one shot, one kill” even more likely. The April 21 test by DARPA contractor Teledyne Scientific & Imaging shows the new bullet homing in on its target by riding a laser beam aimed by the sniper team at the desired target. Vanes on its body—and an onboard optical receiver—allow it to maneuver in mid-flight.

The highly-classified EXACTO program began six years ago. “The ability to more accurately prosecute targets at significantly longer range would provide a dramatic new capability to the U.S. military,” DARPA’S original program description said. “The use of an actively controlled bullet will make it possible to counter environmental effects such as crosswinds and air density, and prosecute both stationary and moving targets while enhancing shooter covertness.”

Such a weapon, DARPA said when it launched the program, could employ “fire and forget” technologies including “fin-stabilized projectiles, spin-stabilized projectiles, internal and/or external aero-actuation control methods, projectile guidance technologies, tamper proofing, small stable power supplies, and advanced sighting, optical resolution and clarity technologies.”

The Pentagon wants the new gun to be no heavier than the combined 46-lb. weight of the current $11,500 M107 sniper rifle and all its associated gear (including ammo, tripod, scope and slide rules for target calculations).

Military sharpshooters require extensive and expensive training—all of which could be reduced with a better gun. Snipers “are unable to take a shot the vast majority of the time” because of wind or other weather factors, and a lack of confidence in their ability to hit the target or flee if detected, DARPA has said.

Then-Army Captain Keith Bell, former commander of the Army sniper school at Fort Benning, Ga., told TIME five years ago that he couldn’t wait to get his hands on the new bullet. “The EXACTO would be revolutionary,” he said from Mosul, Iraq. “It will more than double our range and probably more than double our accuracy.”

Current sniper rifles can regularly hit trucks at 2,000 meters, but not bad guys. (The record kill is 2,430 meters, just over 1.5 miles. It was charted by Canadian army corporal Rob Furlong against a Taliban fighter in Afghanistan’s Shah-i-kot valley during Operation Anaconda in March 2002—but his first two shots missed.) “There’s no limit as far as I can see so long as the bullet’s stable—I think 2,000 or 2,500 meters is very attainable,” Bell said. “Right now, anything past around 800 meters is an extremely tough shot.”

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