FEATURED Air Force

Ukraine Likely Shot Down Passenger Plane

When reports started coming out this afternoon that Malaysian Flight 17 was shot down by a Buk missile, it seemed like a pretty good indication that it was Ukraine that fired the shot.  The media is all over the fact that the Buk is Russian made.   However, in their abundance of ignorance, they’re ignoring that Ukraine’s military uses primarily Russian hardware.  Based on reports so far, it sounds like the surface to air missile was fired by an SA-11, SA-17, or SA-20.  Ukraine has had the SA-11 since they broke off from the Soviet Union.  They procured the SA-17 and SA-20 from the Russian Federation sometime after that.

So even though these are Russian-designed and manufactured weapon systems, Ukraine has many of the same weapons as the Russians.

Why Not The Separatists?

A Russian soldier aiming an SA-24 Grinch.  The SA-24 is the latest MANPAD produced by the Russian Federation.  If Russia is smuggling MANPADs to separatists in Ukraine, they would likely send older SA-7, SA-14 or SA-16 systems.
A Russian soldier aiming an SA-24 Grinch. The SA-24 is the latest MANPAD produced by the Russian Federation. If Russia is smuggling MANPADs to separatists in Ukraine, they would likely send older SA-7, SA-14 or SA-16 systems.

Well, for starters, Russia doesn’t make much of a habit of shooting down planes in Ukrainian airspace.  While Russia may very well be smuggling arms to the pro-Russian separatists, their surface to air missile support is going to be limited to MANPADs (Man Portable Air Defense) like the SA-7 or SA-14.  These are shoulder-fired weapons and it’s pretty clear based on reporting from today that these weapons did not bring down Malaysian Air Flight 17.

What’s the alternative to a MANPAD?  It’s one of these suckers.

The SA-11 Gadfly
HelItR ohjuspäivät Helsingin Ilmatorjuntarykmentti ItO 96, BUK M1

The SA-17 Grizzly
sa17

The SA-20 Gargoyle
sa-20

These aren’t weapon systems you hide in your basement or sneak across the border without anybody noticing. If Russia was smuggling these to the separatists, everybody would know about it.  In recent weeks, the Ukrainian military has been putting the hurt on the separatists in large part due to air strikes on separatist strongholds.  If the separatists had weapon systems like these, Ukraine would have to destroy them before they could do anything else.

Why Not The Russians?

A Ukrainian SU-25 Frogfoot
A Ukrainian SU-25 Frogfoot

Russia may not have the most disciplined army in the world, but they make sure their air defense personnel know what they’re doing.  Earlier this week, Ukraine accused Russia of shooting down one of their SU-25s flying over eastern Ukraine.  Russia denied the Ukrainian accusation.  However, you can bet Russian air defenses were going to be ultra-sensitive to firing at planes over Ukraine in the immediate aftermath of the SU-25 downing.

Practically speaking, Russia has nothing to fear from a large jet plane flying from the direction of Ukraine.  The SU-25 Frogfoot (pictured above) is the closest thing Ukraine has to a bomber.   Ukraine doesn’t have that stereotypical large bomber like our B-52 Superfortress or the Russian Tu-95 Bear.  There’s no way a jet liner could be mistaken for a Ukrainian bomber because Ukraine doesn’t have bombers.  In fact, the only ground-attack aircraft Ukraine has is the SU-25, and there’s no mistaking that with passenger plane.

Why Ukraine?

Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 flew off course from its normal flight pattern.  Bad things seem to happen when Malaysian pilots go off course.
Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 flew off course from its normal flight pattern. Bad things seem to happen when Malaysian pilots go off course.

Because unlike Russia, Ukraine does have a lot more to be fearful of when it comes to large aircraft in eastern Ukraine.  Especially when that plane is flying off course.  Being on the edge of war with a reemerging superpower like Russia puts a lot of pressure on your forces.  Day in and day out, waiting for Russia to cross the border, it requires some really thick skin to not make any mistakes.  Unfortunately for the 298 souls lost on Flight 17, I think that’s what happened.  Through the process of elimination, Ukraine is the lone suspect still in the room. Ukraine had the most likely motive (mistaken identity and paranoia) and the means to bring down Flight 17.

Why Maybe Not Ukraine?

I would be giving you some crappy analysis if I didn’t offer some reasons why I may be wrong.  First of all, Flight 17 was flying away from Ukrainian positions and came into the country from a direction opposite of where Russia would have entered Ukrainian air space.  If you see a plane is going in a non-threatening route and can’t verify its identity, it seems incredibly foolish to shoot it down.  This would suggest the separatists managed to capture an SA-11 or SA-17 and just shot down the first thing that came up on radar.  However, it would be incredible if separatists managed to not only capture one of these systems, but bring it online and destroy a target before the Ukrainian military destroyed or recaptured it.

It’s also worth noting that Ukraine only has a very limited number of functional SA-20 systems.  Ukraine only has six SA-20s according to Ракетная техника.  If it is somehow revealed that an SA-20 destroyed Flight 17, I think there’s a slightly higher chance that Russia may have been the culprit.

Not an American-Made Weapon!

The biggest sigh of relief for both the United States and Ukraine so far is that a US-made weapon system wasn’t responsible.  CBS News had a commentator on condemning the United States for its weapons proliferation (as though we are anywhere as bad as Russia).  Had a US-made surface to air missile brought down Flight 17, there would be a lot of comparisons to Ukraine now and Georgia in 2008.  As we have discussed before, Georgia attacked its own citizens in ethnically Russian communities and many of the weapons they were using were sold to them by the United States.

Even though Ukraine has been asking for US and NATO military support in this conflict, they have only received non-lethal aid.  If it turns out that this was a Ukrainian surface to air missile, it will only stress to Russian supporters that giving large weapon systems to the Ukrainians is dangerous.  However, the fact that these weren’t American-made weapons leaves the door of weapons sales open if Russia escalates the conflict.

UPDATE: This post no longer represents my thoughts on what happened.  I have a follow up post planned for tonight elaborating on this.

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Kevin Tracy

Kevin Tracy is an Air Force veteran, terrorism/counterterrorism expert, and jack of all trades. KTracy's day job is designing electrical systems for new fossil power plants and environmental solutions. On the side, he keeps a blog, fundraises for political candidates and the St. Baldrick's Foundation, writes and illustrates comic books, and studies foreign affairs in depth.

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