MH17 and Moscow’s Magical Mystery Jets

July 22, 2014
A Russian-backed separatist guards the wreckage of MH17 on Friday | Maxim Zmeyev/Reuters

After a weekend of virtual silence—while elements of the Russian media tried to fill the infospace with all kinds of lurid and rapidly-debunked rumor and conjecture—Monday saw Moscow hit back at the allegations that Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 was shot down by separatist rebels with Russian government assistance. Beyond President Putin’s strangely constrained personal statement (not the body language of a man at all comfortable with the situation), a key element were the “ten questions” posed by Lt. Gen. Andrey Kartopolov, chief of the General Staff’s Main Operations Directorate and Lt. Gen. Igor Makushev, chief of the Air Force Main Staff at a press conference on 21 July.

The overall intent is nakedly to shift blame onto Kiev (and Washington) and to provide the basis for subsequent challenges to the inevitable findings of any serious international enquiry: that MH17 was shot down by a rebel missile (as they themselves have been overheard admitting).

Broadly speaking, the “questions”—all unashamedly leading ones—framing Russia’s implicit defense argument concern three broad questions: the shift in MH17’s flight from its original route; the alleged presence of Ukrainian air defense units in the area, with their radars active; and the alleged presence of Ukrainian military aircraft close to the airliner shortly before and after it had been shot down.

The question of the aircraft’s route has been explained already. The Malaysian government has affirmed that there was no last-minute course change, just a slight deviation necessitated by a thunderstorm to the south and requested by the pilot.

Likewise, the issue of the presence of Ukrainian government air defense systems is something of a red herring, not least given the clear evidence that the separatists had deployed at least one Buk system in the area. Considering the evidence of increasing direct Russian intervention in the conflict—not least cross-border rocket barrages—then it would only be prudent for Kiev to watch its skies. But any attack from where the Russians allege the Ukrainian Buk-M1s were based would have meant the missile would have flown over rebel positions. It is hard to believe that no one would have noticed a large, loud, bright missile streaking through the skies above them.

Worth dwelling on, though, are the questions relating to alleged government aircraft:

6. What was a military plane doing on the route intended for civilian flights?

Russian monitoring systems registered that there was a Ukrainian Air Force jet, probably Su-25, climbing and approaching the Malaysian Boeing.”

The Su-25 was 3-5 km away from the Malaysian plane. Su-25 is capable of climbing to the altitude of 10,000 meters for a short period of time. Its standard armament includes R60 air-to-air missiles, which are capable of locking and hitting targets from 12 km and which are guaranteed to hit the target from the distance of 5 km.”

One wishes the Russians would make their minds up: was it a Ukrainian ground-based missile or a jet they are implying shot down MH17? In any case, setting aside the continued implausibility of this “false flag” hypothesis, or indeed Kiev’s claim that no such jet was in the area, let’s consider the details.

A Su-25 is a ground-attack aircraft. Yes, it can be armed with air-to-air missiles such as the R-60 ‘Aphid’, but its 3kg warhead—compared with the SA-11 Buk’s 70kg—is extremely unlikely to have done the damage visible on MH17. Eyewitness and photographic evidence from the crash site demonstrates a very broad and deep fragmentation pattern. Both the Buk’s 98M38 or 98M317 missiles and the R-60 are designed to explode just before impact to blast the target with shrapnel, but the size, pattern and above all quantity and kinetic energy of the two weapons’ warheads are very different.

Nor necessarily is an R-60 at all likely to have brought a Boeing 777 down with one hit. The KAL 007 747 brought down by Soviet fighters in 1983 was hit by two heavier R-98 missiles (with 40kg warheads) and still did not suffer the immediate, catastrophic destruction evident for MH17. Overall, the damage clearly points to a larger weapon than the R-60.

Meanwhile, the Russians are claiming that a second aircraft surveilled the crash site:

7. Why was the military jet flying at almost the same time and the same altitude with a passenger plane?

At 17:21’35, with [the Boeing’s] velocity having dropped to 200 kilometers per hour, a new mark detecting an airborne object appears at the spot of the Boeing’s destruction. This new airborne object was continuously detected for the duration of four minutes by the radar stations Ust-Donetsk and Buturinskaya. An air traffic controller requested the characteristics of the new airborne object, but was unable to get any readings on its parameters – most likely due to the fact that the new aircraft was not equipped with a secondary surveillance radar transponder, which is a distinctive feature of military aircraft,” said Makushev.

Detecting the new aircraft became possible as it started to ascend. Further changes in the airborne object’s coordinates suggest that it was hovering above the Boeing 777’s crash site, monitoring of the situation.”

Let’s consider this claim, too. The Russians are calling this a “jet” and suggesting that it was shadowing MH17. And yet, to “hover” requires a helicopter (or, if you want really outré conspiracy theory, a US V-22 Osprey tilt-rotor, and if that appeals, please feel free to ignore the evidence that the closest V-22 is at RAF Mildenhall in the UK). There is a distinct implausibility of the notion that a Ukrainian government helicopter could loiter within two miles of the rebel-held town of Hrabove without the separatists noticing it, let alone doing anything about it.

Furthermore, MH17 had been cruising at around 476 knots, or 545 mph. Even assuming it was slowing as it descended to its death, the fastest helicopter in the Ukrainian arsenal is the Mi-24. Its flat-out speed is some 210 mph, and flying at that speed for any time means not carrying external stores (such as weapons systems or sensor pods) and taking no precautions against the man-portable surface-to-air missiles the rebels have already used to bring down other government helicopters.

The Russian word barrazhirovat’, typically translated as ‘hover,’ can also mean simply patrol or loiter, though, so let’s run with that, too. The Su-25 has a stall speed of around 120-140 mph; in other words, if it flies any slower than that, a couple of miles every minute, it will fall out of the sky. The crash site covers an area of around eight square miles, on the very outskirts of Hrabove. In order to ‘patrol’ over this area, the jet would have had to have been circling constantly, at the very outside limits of its turning radius, and at its minimum speed, Even so, it would have been covering a circle which would have brought it over not only Hrabove, but also the nearby town of Rasypnoe, also in rebel hands. And yet rebel and civilian sources alike said nothing about seeing and hearing this plane repeatedly flying overhead, as the Russians appear to claim, in a pattern which would also leave it an excellent target for a MANPAD missile, as well as stressing the airframe to the limits. This seems hardly more plausible.

In short these particular allegations, like the others raised by Moscow and its chorus of apologists, simply fail to hold water. Their main role, after all, is not so much to convince the skeptical and the informed, but rather to reassure the sympathetic and confuse the uncertain, filling the information space with enough rumor, conjecture, conspiracy theory and downright misinformation to try to prevent any clear consensus emerging.

The point is not to let them.