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Political Gamesmanship Aside - MH17 Appears to be a Tragic Error

Wreakage of Malaysian flight MH17
Wreakage of Malaysian flight MH17
Photo by Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images

Malaysian flight MH17 took off from Amsterdam headed for Kuala Lumpur. Five hours later the 777 plummeted to the ground in eastern Ukraine after a surface-to-air missile struck the aircraft at its cruising altitude of 33,000 feet.

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President Obama spoke to the White House press corps, offering his take on the flight that cost 298 lives. "Nearly 300 innocent lives were taken -- men, women, children, infants -- who had nothing to do with the crisis in Ukraine. Their deaths are an outrage of unspeakable proportions."

The president’s generic response did little to shed light on circumstances on the ground in Eastern Ukraine. Neither has Kiev's delay in releasing cockpit and air traffic control tapes that provides important information in explaining the deviation of MH17 from the standard flight path. For months the United States as well as the European Union stopped directing commercial airliners over the eastern Ukrainian warzone.

For example, the Brits are reporting the Malaysian plane fell victim to mistaken identity. The Brit view is supported by Dr. Igor Sutyagin, a Russian research fellow for Royal United Services Institute think tank located in England, who claims the rebels shot down the plane believing it was a Ukraine transport.

According to the Daily Mail, “Dr. Sutyagin's theory appears to be supported by a route map which shows the passenger plane travelling on a different course than the ones taken by the 10 previous MH17 flights.” The information was collected from Flightaware, the largest flight-tracking system in the world.

The incident begs the question as to how and why a large commercial airliner would become a target for pro-Russian rebels in the first place? According to Dr. Sutyagin, “(T)here is a Ukrainian mechanized brigade blocked by separatists near the Russian border.”

“It's blocked on three sides by separatists and behind the brigade is the Russian border, so they (Ukraine fighters) can't get out. The Ukrainians try to resupply them from the air by transport aircraft.”

Dr. Sutyagin also says there was a Ukrainian Army transport plane a couple of kilometers south, and to the untrained eye, the IL76/Candid cargo plane carries the same echo as a 777 on a radar screen. “The two planes came close. They tried to shoot down the transport delivering supplies to the brigade. They believed that they had been firing at a military plane, but they mistakenly shot down a civilian airliner,” he concluded.

As confirmation of Dr. Sutyagin's analysis, Russian insurgents bragged about successfully bringing down a Ukrainian cargo AH/26 plane, a Ukrainian fighter jet SU25 as well as a Ukrainian helicopter over the past few days.

Yesterday an Associated Press report further confirms this scenario. “Just seeing a blip on a radar screen was in no away sufficient to make a targeting decision,” said Keir Giles, associate fellow for international security and Russia and Eurasia programs at the Royal Institute of International Affairs. “You need an additional radar system to which these weapons systems can be connected for additional information.”

Retired U.S. Air Force Maj. Gen. Robert Latiff concurred. “My guess is the system's radar saw a return from a big `cargo' plane flying at 30,000 feet or so and either automatically fired, or some aggressive, itchy operator fired, not wanting to miss an opportunity. It doesn't seem they chose to seek any additional data before pulling the trigger,” Latiff established.

Likewise, the International Business Times reminded Americans that the SA-11/Buk missile system was confiscated last month in Ukraine. “The Voice of Russia, a Kremlin-funded radio outlet, bragged on June 29 that the People’s Republic of Donetsk, a self-proclaimed nation within Ukraine that has conducted armed raids on military buildings along the border region of Ukraine and Russia, assumed control of an A-1402 military base. The capture followed a series of incidents in which pro-Russian forces seized control of Ukrainian military facilities.

According to the Voice of Russia, an unnamed military official told RIA Novosti, another state-funded media outlet, that the base was “an anti-aircraft missile force facility equipped with Buk mobile surface-to-air missile systems.”

Finally, U.S. history proves mistaken identity happens during the fog of war. On July 3, 1988, the USS Vincennes, a U.S. Navy cruiser fired two missiles at Iran flight 655, a passenger plane on route to Dubai. All 290 civilians died. The United States government described the event “a regrettable accident.”

So far President Obama seems to corroborate the mistaken identity scenario. “Evidence indicates that the plane was shot down by a surface-to-air missile that was launched from an area that is controlled by Russian-backed separatists inside of Ukraine,” the president said. “We also know that this is not the first time a plane has been shot down in eastern Ukraine. 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. 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.”

A preliminary U.S. intelligence assessment confirms President Obama’s statement that a missile hit the Malaysia Airlines plane and the heat-seeking warhead was most likely fired by pro-Russian separatists who are battling the Ukrainians. Anthony Shafer, Army Lt. Colonel (ret) and DIA agent, said early descriptions of the event equaled it to “a drive-by shooting.” While uninformed politicians were calling the civilian plane shoot-down an “act of war.”

Intelligence officials also established that the missile attack came from an SA-11 surface-to-air missile system, or similar type weapon. However, the U.S. government official advised that the government assessment is not final.

If the weapon used to bring down the Asian airliner was the SA-11, it’s worth noting the sophisticated missile equipment requires 6-9 months of training. It also remains unclear how the separatists got their hands on the defense missile system as both the Ukrainians and Russians have access to this type of weaponry. The Pentagon confirmed that view when Rear Admiral John Kirby said, “I don't have any specific information about a Buk system making that transit. We're not ruling anything in or out at this point. ... The missile itself, the SA-11, which is the one we believe was used to down Flight 17, is a sophisticated piece of technology. And it is -- it -- it strains credulity to think that -- that it could be used by separatists without at least some measure of Russian support and technical assistance.”

Based on current information of missile trajectories and recorded flight paths, one likely possibility for the attack is the Pro-Russian rebels fired at a Ukraine cargo jet and missed. Their inexperience caused the heat-seeking missile to lock on the Malaysian civilian jet. Since the plane was hit at 33,000 feet it would have been well out of range of the much talked about MANPADs (the missing anti-air missiles from Libya that are only capable of reaching 3-5,000 meters). Since the SA-11 BUK anti-air missile batteries were observed earlier in the week by western reporters, and, Russian separatists had claimed to have shot down three Ukrainian aircraft in the past few days, evidence suggests rebel responsibility is fairly certain, but it’s most likely an accidental hit after a deliberate attempt on a Ukraine aircraft.

While the blame game heats up between the two warring countries, Russian President Vladimir Putin, looking the part of a dominant world leader, has called for an immediate ceasefire. But Army Colonel Douglas Macgregor, (ret) PhD, a decorated combat veteran and author, takes a slightly different view on the Eastern Ukrainian quagmire.

Col Macgregor explains the 800-pound gorilla in the room this way: “The inconvenient truth is Putin is waging war against the Ukrainians. It's not ‘separatists’ or rebels. We need to get that straight. He won't back off until the Germans, Poles and other Europeans act to support Ukraine directly. We have no critical strategic interest in Eastern Ukraine and Putin knows it.”

He continues; “In my judgment there are now indisputable facts that should be emphasized: First, the so-called ‘separatists’ are largely Russian forces mixed in with criminal elements from Donetsk. Donetsk was for more than 80 years a place where the Russians sent repeat offenders to work in the mines. They and their descendants form the backbone of the ‘rebels’ fighting against the Ukrainians. Anyone who says these Russians are rogue elements is lying or stupid."

Second, Putin knew about this event almost as soon as it occurred because this (missile) battery was not some rogue element operating independently.

Third, as stated yesterday, it appears that the engagement envelop for the missile system was too broad and high. "My point is the event was the product of an automatic engagement programmed into the system. However, that does nothing to diminish the obvious direct connection to Moscow.”

Col Macgregor said it’s unclear whether President Obama can do anything beyond what he’s done. The American people have no interest in going to war in Eastern Ukraine over Donetsk or Crimea. The real question is what will the Germans, Swedes, Finns, Baltic States, Poles, Slovaks, Hungarians and Romanians do?

Macgregor said, “Putin is obviously hoping the answer is ‘nothing.’ However, this time he’s demonstrated very conclusively that Russia is a state where there is no rule of law, where the exercise of state power is arbitrary and Putin controls the place, perhaps not on the scale of Stalin, but certainly on the scale of Mussolini. That is sinking in with (Angela) Merkel (German Chancellor). The question is whether it will be enough to wake up everyone else.”

The big loser here, according to Macgregor is NATO. “It’s really a dead man walking, with no cohesion or unitary purpose,” he concluded.

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