MH17: Final technical report


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The final technical report from the Dutch safety Board on the crash of Malaysian flight MH17 in Eastern Ukraine has just been released. You can download your copy here or go to the Final report page which also provides links to the appendices. (Warning – I don’t think this URL is permanent).

Having discussed the previous preliminary report here, and got into a debate on responsibility for the crash, I feel the need to make at least some comment on the final report. My comments will be brief – I have so far not read the complete document. The report is 280 pages long, and there are extra, important, appendices (I think about 26 in total) which are also quite lengthy. Very few people will invest the time to get their head around all these.

So, my observations:

1: Its very technical

Well – it could be worse. The report itself does leave the details to appendices – and doesn’t give even appendices for some of the evidence. This video of a recent press conference by the Russian Arms manufacturer gives an idea if the complexity of the issue (made worse in this case by having to rely on an oral English translation). Skip through to the middle if you want to avoid the formal introductions.

2: Blame

This technical investigation did not have the task of apportioning blame – that is the subject of a later report (probably next year) from the criminal investigation group. However, the Ukrainian Government does get the obvious blame for allowing commercial flights  over a war zone – moreover a zone where planes were regularly being shot down. The lessons about this are probably the most important, and of most interest to potential airline passengers. The report makes some recommendations on this

3: The most likely scenario involves a surface-to-air missile

While the report is definitive about this it effectively relies on two assumptions:

  • Most of the likely air-to-air missiles stationed in the area do not contain the “pre-formed elements” (shrapnel) of the shapes found in the crash debris and the bodies of the flight crew.
  • There were no other aircraft in the area at the time. I couldn’t find any mention of the Russian primary radar data released soon after the crash which did suggest two other aircraft were present (these would not necessarily have shown up on the secondary air-traffic control radar if they were military). This was referred to in the preliminary report (see MH17 – Preliminary report leaves most conspiracy theories intact).

So, I don’t think the air-air missile scenario is definitely excluded but the surface-to-air missile scenario seems most likely and that is what was tested in computer simulations.

4: A Buk missile with a specific warhead was most likely used.

This was based on the recovery of “preformed elements” from bodies of the crew and the aircraft debris. Bow-tie, and square elements were found. The 9N314M warhead contains such elements.

Interestingly the missiles on the Buk-1 system (used by the Ukrainian armed forces use this warhead, but not the missiles on the Buk-2 system (used by the Russian federation armed forces).

The manufacture of the Buk systems, Almaz-Antey, claim the preformed elements found show an even earlier warhead was used, rather than the 9N314M. These warheads are no longer used in the Russian Federation as they are past their use-by date. But the manufacturer had reported servicing the older Buk systems own by Ukraine in the last 10 years.

5: Aircraft damage used to find possible missile trajectory

Simulation modelling was used to find the likely missile trajectory and launch region. The modelling was done by two Dutch groups (NLR & TNO), a forensic group in the Ukrainian Ministry of Justice and the Almaz-Antey company (the manufacturer). While all groups produced similar results  using the NLR/TNO data the Almaz-Antey group found a different missile orientation and locality on detonation using their own collected data.

This difference is immaterial for the purposes of this report but will be important for the criminal investigation.

Incidentally, Almaz-Antey have tested their computer simulations using field experiments involving detonation of a missile near typical material used in construction of the plane and, more recently, the front section of a decommissioned plane very similar to the Boeing. They reported in the press conference in the above video that the experiments vindicated their simulation results. However, the last experiment came too late to influence the Dutch safety Board Report.

Conclusion

No one expected identification of the forces responsible for shooting down flight MH17 in this report – and this is not the task of the Dutch Safety Board. More information apportioning blame should appear in the report from the Criminal investigation Team next year.

The report drew some conclusions about how authorities and airlines should handle the problem of flights over areas of conflict. Hopefully, this will make airline travel safer in future.

In my mind, a scenario involving an air-to-air missile was not completely ruled out (and perhaps the report should have been more qualified about this). However, a surface-to-air missile appears most likely.

So, two of the scenarios (involving attack aircraft) I suggested in my article on the preliminary report, MH17 – Preliminary report leaves most conspiracy theories intact, are most likely ruled out. The remaining scenario I mentioned was that the plane was downed by a surface-to-air missile launched by armed forces of the Kiev government, the Russian Federation or the opposition pro-autonomy militias.

The old warhead suggests that armed forces of the Russian federation were not involved and most probably rules out the social media story of a Russian Buk system being brought in specifically for the attack and then quickly removed.

I think this leaves either the armed forces of the Kiev government (Ukrainian army) or the Donetsk and Luhansk regions fighting for autonomy. The Ukrainian army is known to have weapons of this sort while both Kiev and the rebels claimed the rebels did not.

However, there is evidence that the rebels had either captured one or more Buk systems, or had obtained them via defection of military from the Ukrainian army (on the other hand reports from both the rebels and the Ukrainian side have claimed that at least one captured system was not operational).

So, still too early to claim we know who shot down MH17.

But, of course, that won’t stop the politically motivated blame game that has been going on in the international media (and promoted by some governments) ever since the plane hit the ground.

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11 responses to “MH17: Final technical report

  1. David Fierstien

    The question of who shot MH17 down is secondary to the question of who is responsible for the turmoil in the Ukraine. And while we may never see eye to on what I would call the illegal invasion and annexation of Crimea, you have, nevertheless, given me food for thought about Kiev. Having one’s point of view challenged so vigorously can only contribute to one’s own growth.🙂

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  2. These warheads are no longer used in the Russian Federation as they are past their use-by date. But the manufacturer had reported servicing the older Buk systems own by Ukraine in the last 10 years.

    I would put little weight on conclusions as to who fired upon the the craft based on the type of missile systems, until assured that no black market trade in such armaments is, or had been, occuring. We are dealing with a civil war and with militias, militias commonly obtain munitions illegally.

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  3. Agreed Richard. That is why I am not being definite.

    On the balance, I think most likely a Ukrainian Armed forces system was used – whether by the rebels of the Ukrainian army. There has been a very large number of defections form the Ukrainian army to the rebels so this would be the most likely source if the rebels had an active system. And I think the social media story of a Russian system being specially imported for the job is unlikely.

    But there is plenty of black marketing (hell, the Russians are actually building a fence on their side of the border to prevent arms being smuggled into Russia!). And there are large dumps of old Soviet arms in Ukraine, Russia and Transnistria. And if authorities (in contrast to mercenaries) in the Russian federation are secretly supplying arms they would most likely provide the old armaments anyway as a cover.

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  4. It is secondary in the sense that it wouldn’t have happened without the armed conflict in the Donbass. And that armed conflict would not have happened without the coup in Kiev. In that sense, the Ukrainian authorities must bear responsibility.

    But politically Ukraine is divided between those who oppose any autonomy for minorities and wish to impose their pure version of the Ukrainian nation on the whole country, and those who wish to have a democratic, multi-ethnic state.

    The current government in Kiev is trapped and cannot break out of its current anti-autonomy position because of strong political opposition from the nationalists – many of them little better than Nazis.

    This also means that Kiev is unable to carry out the political and economic clauses of the Minks agreement – every time they make a move in that direction the nationalists mobilise to threaten the government. The ceasefire is now pretty effective, but it cannot last with the current blockade of the east by Kiev and refusal to move on the political clauses.

    Meanwhile, the people in Crimea seem pretty happy to be well away from that mess – whatever claims are made about the legality of their decision.

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  5. David Fierstien

    “Meanwhile, the people in Crimea seem pretty happy to be well away from that mess – whatever claims are made about the legality of their decision.”

    It almost sounds like you are saying the ends justify the means.

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  6. Perhaps in a sense it does for the Crimeans. After all the internationally legal right for a people to determine their own situation is recognised in law. And the rights of the whole nation state were subverted in this case by an illegal coup.

    Crimea is often compared to Kosovo, but at least the Crimeans have the legitimacy of a democratic decision. The Kosovans didn’t.

    And surely the people in Crimea must be very thankful that their political decision prevented the catastrophe that befell the Donbass where cities and villages were bombed and many people lived in cellars or bomb shelters for long periods.

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  7. David Fierstien

    “After all the internationally legal right for a people to determine their own situation is recognised in law.”

    I am unaware of any poll that was taken by the people of Crimea, or any referendum in which it was decided that Russia would be welcomed to roll in and seize control of the area. If you could provide some kind of proof that the people of Crimea really wanted Russian tanks to invade their province I would really like to see it.

    ” . . . the people in Crimea must be very thankful that their political decision prevented the catastrophe . .” By “their political decision” you must mean surrendering to the Russian military.

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  8. This from Wikipedia:

    “Crimean status referendum, 2014 was a referendum on the status of Crimea held on March 16, 2014, by the legislature of Autonomous Republic of Crimea as well as by the local government of Sevastopol, both subdivisions of Ukraine at the time. The referendum asked the people of Crimea whether they wanted to join Russia as a federal subject, or if they wanted to restore the 1992 Crimean constitution and Crimea’s status as a part of Ukraine.”

    According to Putin in a recent TV documentary on Crimea and its return the leadership of the Russian federation also asked for polling to be done beforehand when they were considering intervention.

    I don’t recall any tanks rolling into Crimea – although there were tanks and artillery heading in that direction – Ukrainian tanks, not Russian. I was amazed that it had come to that and just could not believe that the Kiev junta would actually end up firing their artillery against Ukranian villages.

    Armed forces of the RF did not invade Crimea – they were already there and although some were brought in by helicopter during the emergency the treaty numbers were never exceeded. There were surrenders of Ukrainian bases and ships to the local authorities – in most cases they were in effect defections. (Even in the Donbass fighting there has been a huge number of defections – even president Poroshenko said 30% of his armed forces had defected – the number is probably larger). The presence of the RF armed forces did make possible the break away of this autonomous region and prevent the overthrow of its government (as happened in Kiev and many other regions). All without a shot being fired.

    Crimean support for return to Russia and opposition to the ultranationalist regime in Kiev is hardly surprising. They have voted before for such a return soon after the USSR broke up and they have maintained quite a degree of autonomy. They are mostly Russian people after all and the transfer from Russia to Ukraine was probably illegal as it was not confirmed by the Supreme Soviet. (There is a rumour the Krushchev was drunk at the time🙂 ).

    Actually, Crimea is only one example of what many Russians see as a tragedy resulting from the dissolution of the USSR – the fact that so many Russian nationals ended up outside their own borders, often without their citizenship of the new country being allowed (eg Latvia) and restriction on use of their language and its teaching (an issue in Ukraine). These problems may have been handled better by Russia early on if it hadn’t been so weak and ruled by criminal gangs and oligarchs. As it was, the situation of territories like Crimea and the breakup of the loose confederation after the USSR breakup despite referenda opposing it was a factor in moves to impeach Yeltsin (and probably one of the things he apologised for in his resignation speech).

    And who opposes the current status of Crimea? At the moment, there is a blockade inhibiting trade between Crimea and Ukraine. It is manned by a fascist group – the right sector, and an extreme pro-Tarter group. Despite the Kiev government disapproving of the Right sector (after all this group and Svoboda are responsible for recent grenade attacks in Kiev, they have allowed some of their police to assist this blockade.

    Even Kiev polling companies have acknowledged that the majority of the Crimean people support the current situation as part of the Russian Federation. (The higher salaries and wages probably help.🙂 )

    I personally cannot see Crimea returning to Ukraine (and I suspect few Ukrainians expect it). Given the wishes of the Crimean people have been expressed and followed I think the rest of the world will eventually give up using this as an excuse to heighten international tension.

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  9. David, do you remember these images from last year after the coup – people in Ukraine attmetping to prevent tanks heading for Donbass and Crimea.
    tanks

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  10. David Fierstien

    Thank you for providing the Wiki article, Ken. I was ready to concede until I looked at the actual article. For the sake of full disclosure, allow me to copy paste the very next sentence which you failed to include:

    “The available choices did not include keeping the status quo of Crimea and Sevastopol as they were at the time the referendum was held. The 1992 constitution accords greater powers to the Crimean parliament including full sovereign powers to establish relations with other states, therefore many commentators argued that both provided referendum choices would result in de facto separation from Ukraine.”

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  11. Actually, a full discussion of the different constitutions would be fruitful. As you can see from your quote these were of particular relevance to Crimea which had already lost the degree of autonomy it previously had held, and had voted for, because of constitutional changes.

    It is one thing to criticise details of the referendum question (after all it took place as a matter of urgency when extremist groups had already attempted to occupy the parliament) it is another to deny that the people preferred return to Russia over even a higher degree of autonomy.

    Interestingly, though, the existing Ukrainina constitution had already been abandoned because of the coup (and this was confirmed in the Rada). Ukrainians had been chafing constitutions almost as often as they changed their socks – and illustration of the corruptions and control by oligarchs and criminal gangs.

    The question of autonomy is central to what has happened in Ukraine and to its future. The Minsk agreement ( which was approved by representatives of Ukraine, Donetsk and Lugansk) accepted this. Unfortunately Kiev is unwilling, or unable, to carry out that agreement. Which is a pity because the ceasefire will not hold forever without progress with the political and economic clauses.

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