MH17 crash report establishes the cause, but only criminal investigation can find those responsible

Tjibbe Joustra announces the Dutch Safety Board’s findings. Robin van Longhuijsen/EPA

The Dutch Safety Board’s report into the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines MH17 and the death of all 298 people on board presents compelling evidence that the aircraft was destroyed by a missile launched from a 320 square kilometre area in Eastern Ukraine. While the investigation chose not to include it – another Dutch-led criminal investigation is also underway – there is substantial other information that supports these claims.

The missile

The report identifies the missile that brought down MH17 as a 9N314M fragmentation warhead, carried by a 9M38-series missile launched from a Buk surface-to-air missile system. The Buk SA-11 surface-to-air missile system (NATO designation “Gadfly”) entered service in 1982 and was widely exported to Eastern Bloc countries, and this system uses the missile and warhead identified by the investigators. An upgraded Buk launcher known as SA-17 (“Grizzly”) arrived in 1998.

While the newer warhead and missile used by the SA-17 were upgraded over the years many of the older type remain in service. So while the manufacturer of the Buk missile, Russian firm Almaz-Antey, claimed that Buk systems in service with the Russian armed forces are of a later type and concluded that the offending system therefore belonged to Ukraine, it’s quite possible that Russian forces may still have been using the older type – or for them to supply it to Ukrainian separatists. So Almaz-Antey’s claim should be treated with considerable caution.

The fragmentation warhead of a Buk surface-to-air missile. Dutch Safety Board

The launcher

In any case, when the separatists overran Ukrainian army depots in the eastern regions there were complete, fully-functional Buk systems there for taking – despite their having no experience of operating them safely. With a speed of 1,900mph the missile could have reached MH17 at 33,000ft in just over 11 seconds, where the fragmentation charge launches thousands of pieces of shrapnel in a spread pattern, as discovered by the investigators. The SA-11 is reputed to have a kill rate of 95%, so it is more than capable of downing MH17 even with virtually untrained operators.

A Buk M1 surface-to-air missile launcher. Ajvol

The Buk radar controller is fitted with an “identification friend or foe” device (IFF) capable of determining automatically whether a target is allied, enemy, or a civilian or commercial aircraft, using the same secondary surveillance radar transponder used by air traffic control to identify aircraft. However, the Buk launcher also allows the IFF system to be bypassed. Used like this, the radar shows all targets in range, the operator selects one and presses the fire button. Only very basic training is required.

Evidence tampering

Due to their location so close to the frontline, the MH17 crash sites were not quarantined. Tampering with evidence was noted between photographs taken in the hours after the crash and what was found when the investigators arrived at the wreckage. For example, flight avionics, debris showing scorch marks and missile and warhead fragments had been removed. The report note that shrapnel had been removed from the captain’s body, but it did not say who did so and under what authority.

Bellingcat, a website of “open source intelligence” that accumulates reports, photographs and video from around the internet, purported to show a Buk launcher being transported to Ukraine in June 2014. Within 12 hours of MH17 being brought down, the same launcher was seen being transported back to the Russian border. There will be answers that it was being used for a training exercise, and this doesn’t prove it was the launcher responsible, but the images contradict Russia’s claim that no such system was transported to Ukraine.

Electronic evidence

Immediately after news of the shooting down spread, Igor Girkin, leader of the Ukrainian separatists, took credit, claiming on Vkontakte (the Russian Facebook) that his troops had shot down what was assumed to be a Ukrainian military transport. He denied any involvement after learning it was a civilian airliner. Numerous purported telephone communications between separatist commanders intercepted by the US and the Ukrainian military have been released, and these and others will presumably be included as part of the ongoing Dutch criminal investigation.

At the time of the incident it was reported that a US RC-135 Rivet Joint reconnaissance aircraft and a AWACS E3 surveillance aircraft observing the conflict may have captured electronic intelligence and communications surrounding the event. This intelligence data would include Buk target acquisition radar and missile guidance signals, so if it exists it would show conclusively where the Buk missile was fired from – but not who actually fired the missile. Imagery from US Lacrosse/Onyx intelligence satellites showing the Buk launcher in position may also be available. The US stated soon after the crash its belief that the separatists were responsible; if the US has further intelligence to add it may be made available to the criminal investigation.

So we’re sure the missile that brought down MH17 carried a 9N314M warhead fired from a SA-11 or SA-17 missile system. We are certain that the missile was fired from Eastern Ukraine. It’s possible to calculate from the pattern the missile’s explosion left on MH17’s flight deck that its trajectory leads back to territory controlled by Ukrainian separatists. The other available evidence not considered by the Dutch Safety Board adds to what looks like a compelling case. But is it compelling enough to convict in a court of law? A smoking gun is not enough; what is really needed is someone to come forward who was involved that day to give evidence.