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

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 Australia

Australia Grieves After 28 Nationals Die in MH17 Crash

Malaysia Airlines plane crashes in eastern Ukraine
Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott speaks about the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 in Ukraine during a press conference in Canberra, Australia on July 18, 2014. Alan Porritt — EPA

Canberra summons Russian ambassador Vladimir Morozov for an explanation

Grief and shock rippled through Australia after news broke early Friday morning that 28 of its citizens had been aboard the ill-fated Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, which was allegedly shot down by a surface-to-air missile in southeastern Ukraine on Thursday.

Flags flew at half-mast in Canberra as Prime Minister Tony Abbott addressed the nation’s parliament on Friday morning. “The reckless indifference to modern life does not have any place in our world,” he said.

The Russian ambassador to Australia, Vladimir Morozov, was summoned following myriad reports that the plane was downed by weaponry fired by pro-Russian separatists in southeastern Ukraine. Kiev has long claimed the rebels are being supported by Moscow.

“I asked him for Russia’s explanation as to how a commercial plane could come down from that altitude over eastern Ukraine,” said Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, according to the Sydney Morning Herald.

“[Morozov] assured me Russia would do what it could to find those responsible.”

The death of 28 of the nation’s citizens is the largest loss of Australian lives during a terrorist incident — if that is indeed what it is — since the Bali bombings in 2002. Out of the 298 people killed on Thursday, approximately 100 people were also en route to Australia to attend the International AIDS Conference in Melbourne.

Security analysts say the incident will likely have immediate repercussions within the country’s security circles.

“Australia cannot afford to ignore the problems of the world, because they come back and affect us in the most horrible of ways as we’ve seen today,” said Rory Medcalf, security program director at Australian think tank the Lowy Institute.

“This reminds us that what’s happening in Ukraine has now become everybody’s business. It’s affected our security in the most awful, direct way.”

Out of the country’s population of 23 million, approximately 1 million are abroad at any given time — making Australia an unusually integrated country in global affairs despite its geographic isolation, explains Medcalf.

One such person was Perth management consultant Nick Norris, who was travelling on MH 17 along with his grandchildren, Mo, 12, Evie, 10, and Otis, 8. One acquaintance remembered Norris as an integral member in his community.

“Nick has been an important part of the club and an active member — as were his grandchildren,” David Harries, the South of Perth Yacht Club general manager, tells TIME.

The club issued a statement praising Norris as a “well loved and respected” member of the club. It said that members were “shocked by this tragic, senseless loss of family members and club members. It will have a lasting impact on the club and members.”

Others among the 28 who perished on Thursday included a nun from Sydney and a couple coming home after touring Europe.

Blowback to the tragedy was immediate as people began canceling reservations with Malaysia Airlines, which is suffering from the loss of its second plane in over four months after its Flight 370 inexplicably vanished over the Indian Ocean in early March.

“We have had several cancellations of clients booked to fly on Malaysian Airlines,” said Penny Spencer, managing director of popular agency Spencer Travel. “But because this has happened twice now it is going to make things a whole lot more difficult for Malaysia Airlines to get over this.”

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 movies

EXCLUSIVE: Watch Philip Seymour Hoffman Talk About His Last Film

"You just kinda trust he's going to make something special," says the actor of Anton Corbijn, who directed Hoffman in the last film he finished

A Most Wanted Man, the last film Philip Seymour Hoffman completed before dying of a heroin overdose on Feb. 2, hits theaters on July 25. It’s directed by the Dutch photographer-turned-music video director-turned-movie director Anton Corbijn, who’s known for distinctively quiet, dark movies like Control and The American.

Hoffman plays an anguished German intelligence operative in the movie, who’s trying to prevent further terrorist attacks without stomping on anyone’s human rights. While his character is both ruthless and tortured, the actor wasn’t like that on set, Corbijn tells TIME in a new feature. “He was fun to be with,” he says. “During editing when he was sitting next to me, I’d look at him and think, It’s not possible—this is absolutely not the guy ­onscreen.”

He does recall with regret that Hoffman didn’t look well, especially when the two promoted the film together at Sundance. “Only when I look back now I see that he was actually more disheveled than I realized. I just thought it was the way he operated.”

Hoffman, who appeared in this promotional video with co-stars Rachel McAdams and Willem Dafoe, apparently had equal respect for his director. “He’s an artist and he looks at everything in a very unique way,” says Hoffman. “And you just kinda trust he’s going to make something special.”

In his book about the movie (also called A Most Wanted Man), Corbijn writes of a disagreement he had with the actor about shooting a scene Hoffman didn’t feel he was ready to film. But after they argued, the two figured out how to work together. “He’ll let me do what I need to do to get where I need to go,” says Hoffman in the video. “He doesn’t get in your way. In fact, he lets you run with the ball.”

Corbijn had asked Hoffman to appear in a small role in his next film, a biopic about James Dean and a photographer who changed each other’s lives; he says Hoffman was trying to find a way to make it work. Hoffman, meanwhile, found a good working relationship with Corbijn; he says the director’s films work because “his trust of other people is complete.”

For his part, Corbijn feels an extra responsibility to get people to see A Most Wanted Man. During the interview, he needed a moment to compose himself after talking about the late actor: “I wish he were here to do these interviews with me,” he said.

TIME

Americans Support Drone Strikes, Rest of World Begs to Differ

PAKISTAN-US-MISSILE-ATTACK
Activists shout slogans as they protest against a US drone attack in Multan, Pakistan on December 26, 2103. S S MIRZA—AFP/Getty Images

A global opinion poll finds majorities in 39 countries disapprove of U.S. drone strikes

Americans support drone strikes by a slim majority, even if the rest of the world begs to differ by a wide margin, according to a new poll released by Pew Research Center on Monday.

The survey found that a majority of respondents in 39 countries opposed U.S. drone strikes, compared with only three countries, Israel, Kenya and the U.S., where more than half of respondents supported the tactic. Nowhere did the support match the lopsided opposition in countries such as Venezuela and Jordan, where disapproval topped 90%.
Widespread Opposition to Drones

Despite these misgivings about signature American policies, global opinion of the U.S. remains unchanged according to Pew, with a median of 65% of respondents across 43 nations expressing positive views.

TIME movies

Hollywood Eyes Film Based on Boston Marathon Bombing Survivor’s Story

Jeff Bauman Throws First Pitch At Fenway Park
Boston Marathon bombing victim Jeff Bauman threw out a ceremonial first pitch on May 28, 2013, at Boston's Fenway Park, where the Philadelphia Phillies played the Red Sox in a regular-season baseball game. Jim Davis—The Boston Globe/Getty Images

Three of the names behind the Oscar-nominated film The Fighter have reportedly signed on to produce a movie about Jeff Bauman

A gutsy survivor of the Boston Marathon bombings is to receive the silver-screen treatment with a film in the works about his remarkable story.

Jeff Bauman lost both his legs to the twin explosions while he was waiting for his girlfriend to complete the race. He penned a book, Stronger, about what occurred that fateful day and his long road to recovery.

According to the Hollywood Reporter, Lionsgate won the deal to develop the picture and brought in Mandeville Films to produce. The project will be an adaptation of Bauman’s book, which he wrote alongside best-selling co-author Bret Whitter.

Three big names who worked on the Oscar-nominated feature The Fighter — Todd Lieberman, David Hoberman and Scott Silver — are producing the film, and actor John Pollono will take on writing the adaptation in his first feature-length project.

Three people were killed and more than 260 were injured when two pressure-cooker bombs exploded just seconds apart from each other as scores of runners were crossing the finishing line in Boston on April 15, 2013.

A manhunt ensued for suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and he was apprehended four days later. His brother and fellow suspect Tamerlan was killed in a shootout with police.

[The Hollywood Reporter]

TIME National Security

Holder Says Latest Terror Threats ‘More Frightening Than Anything’

"It's something that gives us really extreme, extreme concern"

Attorney General Eric Holder says recent intelligence reports of terrorists from Syria partnering with Yemeni bombmakers to create new types of explosives are “more frightening than anything I think I’ve seen as attorney general.”

“It’s something that gives us really extreme, extreme concern,” Holder said during an interview on ABC’s This Week With George Stephanopoulos that aired Sunday. Holder spoke from London, where he was meeting with European officials to discuss security issues.

U.S. officials learned earlier this year that a Syrian al-Qaeda affiliate was collaborating with the Yemen-based bomb designers behind the Christmas Day “underwear bomb” from 2009. Authorities have been aware of threats posed by both groups, but intelligence reports of their work together have raised fresh concerns.

The Transportation Security Administration has also recently increased security at overseas airports in response to concerns that Syria-based terrorists could try to hijack a plane bound for Europe or the U.S. with help from U.S.- and European-passport-carrying fighters in the area.

Approximately 7,000 people, including many Americans, have joined about 16,000 fighters in Syria, and FBI Director James Comey says the government is devoting “a tremendous amount of time and effort to identify” those who’ve gone to Syria, where the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) is active.

“This is not a test,” Holder said of new air-travel security measures. “We’re doing something in reaction to things that we have detected.”

[ABC News]

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