In horrific news, Malaysia Air flight 17, a Boeing 777 flying from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, crashed after being shot down. People are suggesting it could have been shot down either by Russia's built-up air defense apparatus along its border with Ukraine or by pro-Russian separatists with a mobile radar-guided SAM systems. How possible are these scenarios?
Within the last few days, two other Ukrainian aircraft have been shot down in similar fashion and just hours ago, a Su-25 "Frogfoot" close air support aircraft flown by the Ukrainian Air Force was shot down over Eastern Ukraine by what was surmised to have been a radar-guided surface-to-air missile. The pilot ejected safely.
Just days before the downing of the Ukrainian Su-25 "Frogfoot" attack jet near the border of Russia, Ukraine says Russia shot down one of their Antonov An-26 which was executing "anti-terror operations" in the troubled region. Eight people were on-board the Ukrainian transport, and supposedly they bailed out before the aircraft was consumed by flames. This was the third loss of such an aircraft for Ukraine to hostile fire, although this one was operating well outside of the range of shoulder-fired MANPADS that have infested the region. In this incident Ukraine claims that Russia intercepted the jet with fighter aircraft.
Could Someone Have Mistaken This For A Military Aircraft?
Possible video of the plane crashing to earth
Seeing as the Malaysian Air 777 was transiting from west to east, high over the border between the two rivals, it is likely that a highly "stimulated" Russia air defense network, or even a single commandeered SAM battery operated by the Pro-Russian separatists, may have classified the aircraft as a Ukrainian military aircraft. Such incidents are not uncommon even for American-built advanced counter-air systems that include capable identification friend or foe (IFF) systems.
During Operation Iraqi Freedom, US MIM-104 Patriot missile batteries tragically shot down an Royal Air Force Tornado GR4 as well as a US Navy F/A-18C by mistake.
There was also the events of the 3rd of July, 1988 when the American Ticonderoga Class cruiser shot down an Iranian Airlines Airbus 300 passenger jet, with all 290 civilians on-board killed in the process. The USS Vincennes mistook the airliner for a Iranian F-14 Tomcat while it was being harassed by Iranian fast-attack boats.
Seeing as ICAO had put out a over-flight warning of Crimea as this whole conflict erupted earlier in the year, and exact control of the airspace over the region has been in doubt, and remains so, many people, including this author, have believed that a friendly fire incident was quite possible if airliners continued to use routes over the troubled region.
Two possibilities are emerging here as to what, or who for that matter brought down both Ukrainian aircraft, and in Foxtrot Alpha's opinion, possibly the MH17:
Theory #1: Pro-Russian Separatists shot the plane down
There have been rumors that pro-Russian forces have gotten their hands onto SA-6 "Gainful" road-mobile surface-to-air missile systems. This proven and capable system is feared by the West as it can pack-up and move in minutes, thus making it extremely hard to target unless it is emitting radar energy. If rebel forces were either given these systems from Russia, or one similar such as the more modern SA-11/17 "Buk" — something that is quite possible seeing as it is fairly clear Russia has backed these forces — or at least initially, with material and training, then it would also implicate Russia in this tragic event.
Alternatively, the systems could have been looted from stored Ukrainian stocks, in which case the operators may be far less than ideally trained to operate the system and differentiate between enemy and friendly aircraft. It also means that the Rebel's capabilities have been vastly upgraded and they will use even advanced weapons in their fight against Ukrainian Government forces.
Theory #2: Russia shot the plane down
Although it is too early to tell for sure, it is quite possible that Russia's air defense apparatus along the border with Ukraine was on high-alert as it may have already shot down two Ukrainian aircraft. Even if they did not shoot down the Ukrainian aircraft, but pro-Russian forces did, they may have been awaiting a counter-attack or were actively executing a policy of engaging any aircraft deemed Ukrainian near their border.
Seeing as the Russians have the ability to engage targets many dozens of miles into Ukrainian airspace, the practice of locking up and tracking transiting aircraft may have become common practice. Oddly enough, there has been recent surge in Russian forces along the border before these aircraft were shot down over the last three days.
Then there is the question of why was an airliner flying over what amounts to a pretty massive missile engagement zone (MEZ) with a roaring conflict below that has seen widespread proliferation of MANPADS? If the airspace was indeed closed then what was MH17 doing there?
With all the uncertainty there is one thing that is certain, regardless of if Russia did indeed shoot down this airliner or not, the dynamics of this conflict on a world-wide stage will now rapidly change, and the possibility of peace through tragedy, or a much wider conflict through further hostilities, has never been more real.
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For Foxtrot Alpha's past coverage of the Ukraine crisis click here.
Tyler Rogoway is a defense journalist and photographer that maintains the website Foxtrot Alpha for Jalopnik.com You can reach Tyler with story ideas or direct comments regarding this or any other defense topic via the email address Tyler@Jalopnik.com