MH17: An Unintended Consequence

The evidence indicating that MH17 was shot down by a Russian-made radar guided Surface to Air Missile (SAM) is compelling. The perpetrators, on the other hand, will be harder to discern, requiring independent forensic experts to sift through the vast debris field created by the jet breaking up at a speed of over 500mph and at an altitude of 33,000ft. The Flight Data Recorder (FDR) and Cockpit Voice Recorder (CVR) will once again be critical in progressing the sequence of events but unlikely to reveal the culprits. Sadly, the investigation may never actually reach a satisfactory conclusion, as access is already proving difficult due to the vacuum of governance and state security functions in Eastern Ukraine.

Aviation accident investigations are by their nature complex, methodical and slow, especially when compounded by geo-political tensions. But there are critical lessons that must be heeded from the outset, linking the future safety of global air travelers to the adaptation of foreign policy that can effectively confront instability created by state actors pursuing regional agendas through subterfuge.

In a previous life I used to run a four-month intensive course that trained experienced helicopter pilots from the British Army, Royal Navy and Royal Air Force to detect and evade surface-to-air, and air-to-air missiles systems. The aim was to rapidly develop the counter measures knowledge and tactical flying skills of all military pilots who were expected to operate in hostile areas, against an asymmetric enemy, that had access to anti-aircraft threat systems.


The proliferation of Man-Portable Air Defense Systems (MANPADS) amongst rebels and militia has exponentially increased the threat to aircraft and helicopters that operate above lands where governance is scarce and tensions are rife. Many MANPADS use seeker heads that can target heat sources. On a jet or a helicopter, the most contrasting heat signatures emanate from the engines. Due to the high portability of MANPADS, the relatively unsophisticated and quick set-up times, as well as the short target acquisition periods, detecting a missile before it leaves the tube or rail is virtually impossible from the pilot's perspective. The U.S. used this capability to supreme effect by supplying the Mujahedeen fighters with over 2300 Stinger MANPAD missiles during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the eighties. The Soviets at the time had little to no airborne counter measures technology and suffered devastating losses to its air maneuver capability.

Passenger jets are most susceptible to a MANPAD launch during take off and landing when the aircraft is low and slow. For airfields in locations that are vulnerable to such attacks security patrols under the approach and departure lanes are critical. MANPADs have an effective range from around 50ft up to to 18,000ft (20,000ft in the case of the SA-24); any civilian or military air traffic transiting or descending into this height band increase the risk of a shoot down -- the lower the altitude, the higher the vulnerability. MANPADS have already been used to devastating effect in the region. Footage taken North of Slavyansk on Jun 6 appears to show a Ukrainian Air Force AN-30 being shot down by a MANPAD, and on Jun 16, rebels used a MAPAD to shoot down an IL-76 aircraft on approach to Luhansk airport killing 49 souls on board, indicating that pro-Russian separatists have both the capability and the intent (a known risk assessment model) to target larger aircraft at lower altitudes.

The reactive and inconsistent nature of Western Foreign Policy has created vacuums of governance and security structures across the Middle East and North Africa, compounding MANPAD proliferation, and incentivizing rebel, insurgent, terrorist and militia organizations to stockpile shoulder launched missiles within their inventories.

Hitherto, the West has been spared an onslaught of rebel attacks on civilian airliners mainly due to limitations in MANPAD range and the circumnavigation of airspace deemed too risky for over flight by airline operations planners. The void of governance in Eastern Ukraine, along with the pockets of resistance that exist under self-rule, share many similarities to Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan but what the West have failed to identify is the potential for larger, more potent and more lethal SAMs to slip into the wrong hands.

Putin's land grab of Crimea in March 2014 exploited the fragility in Ukraine's ability to govern and implement law and order on its eastern flank. Moreover, it exposed a battle-fatigued NATO alliance with a military mindset deeply entrenched in counter-insurgency warfare, and procurement programs dominated by the requirement to minimize collateral and prevent failure in Iraq and Afghanistan.

What completely wrong footed Western contingency planners was that a state actor, traditionally bound by International conventions and accountability, was leveraging pro-Russian separatist rebels indigenous to Ukraine, to further his political agenda.

As NATO reacted by deploying air defense capability to Eastern Europe (comprising six US Air Force F-15s, twelve US F-16s, four British Typhoons and four French Rafale jets), Putin will have been instructing his generals to ensure Russia's Integrated Air Defense System (IADS) was configured to intercept fast-moving fourth generation Western fighter at altitudes in excess of 40,000ft. Critical to the Russian IADS are radar guided SAM systems, along with his own cadre of air defense jets and Anti Aircraft Artillery (AAA) batteries.


Both the Ukraine and Russia are saturated with a myriad of medium to long range tracked or wheel based SAM systems that use 'search' and 'target tracking' radar to acquire and prosecute aircraft and cruise missiles. Russia in particular produces the S300 and S400 hundred series of systems ranging from the older SA-12B 'Giant' to the newer SA-21 'Growler' respectively. The Growler can engage targets out to 250Km and altitudes of 100,000ft. An unconfirmed version of the S300 was delivered by Russia to Syria in May 2013 and its reported that China could be the first buyer of the S400. The Russian systems are cheaper than the U.S. made Patriot missiles and come with less political strings attached.

The NATO jets (as well as Russian aircraft) will be equipped with a Radar Warning Receiver (RWR), a sensor connected through a processor to a display in the cockpit that alerts the pilot when a specific type of radar is 'painting' (or looking at) their aircraft. A game of 'cat and mouse' is typically played between the SAM radar operators and the opposing fighters. The SAM operator's aim is to turn the radar on long enough to acquire and launch a missile at the fighter. If the radar remains on for too long, it becomes vulnerable to offensive fighters that have a specific role in targeting SAMs.


In concert with an RWR, the NATO aircraft will be able to deploy "chaff." Small bundles of reflective metal ejected from the aircraft that bloom to create a second radar signature in an attempt to decoy an incoming radar guided missile. An RWR and chaff capability on MH17 would, however, not have saved the 298 lives on board. The counter measures used by fighter jets are made effective by the ability to harshly maneuver the aircraft at high g-loads once the missile is in the air - a tactic that is structurally not possible or recommended for airliners.


Reports suggest that along with MANPADS, separatist rebels have the capability and intent to launch radar guided SAMs. On July 14, an AN-26 was shot down over the Luhansk region from an altitude of 21,000ft - higher than a MANPAD's maximum range. According to the WSJ, Ukraine initiated a partial flight ban on aircraft below 26,000ft on Jul 1, and raised it to 32,000ft on July 14. The Jul 14 AN-26 shoot down, along with intelligence reports indicating the movements of the Buk systems (NATO codename SA-11 'Gadfly') in the region, should have initiated a collaborative risk assessment by the CAA, FAA, and airline operations staff that recommended all overflight of Ukraine's Eastern border be avoided and alternate routes sought. It is clear that rebels had the capability and the intent to use radar guided missiles, what was woefully underestimated was the incompetence to use them correctly.

There is little doubt in my mind that the downing of MH17 was an unintentional act but instead a tragic and unintended consequence of a state actor playing out his political agenda through subversive and Machiavellian scheming. Equally as tragic is the inability of Western Foreign Policy makers to react, without hesitation and with unwavering commitment, to reassure passengers flying around the world that every action is being taken to prevent a tragedy of this nature occurring again.

My deepest sympathies are with the families of the 298 souls on MH17 and 293 souls on MH370 that never made it to their destination.