Not since Pan Am Flight 73 was so tragically blown out of the skies over Lockerbie back in December 1988 killing all 243 passengers and 16 crew on board has the world witnessed a criminal act of murder and treachery in the aviation industry on such a scale as that seen over the skies over eastern Ukraine yesterday. The loss of 283 passengers and 15 crew of the Malaysian Airlines flight MH 17 was not only a criminal act of murder on a massive scale, but one that will determine and change the course of diplomacy and international relations between west and east for the next generation.
There seems little doubt now that the destruction of flight MH 17 was the result of an attack from a Russian made medium-range surface-to-air missile – this most likely to have come from a Russian made Buk mobile based launcher system of the type that has been in service for over thirty years. We had known for some time that Moscow has been supplying Ukraine separatists with various anti-aircraft weaponry and also that the Russian military has been training ‘rebels’ how to use such systems.
At a reported 32,800 cruising flight the Buk system can hit aircraft flying at very high altitudes and well beyond that which the Malaysian airline was believed to be cruising. We also know that Russian separatists have captured various surface to air missile systems from Ukraine forces and that its leader, Igor Strelkov had in the hours that preceded the criminal act boasted on social media about having brought down a Russian built Antanov 26 transport aircraft that presumably belonged to the Ukraine Air Force.
Whether directly or indirectly involved or not there will in the eyes of the world be a very heavy price to pay for Russia to pay for its underlying involvement in this terrorist act. Whether Russian separatists that are alleged to be behind the shooting down of this aircraft knew that it was a passenger aircraft owned by a foreign airline or not cannot excuse what they did. This aircraft was after all clearly visible to its attackers and even flying above 32,000ft I suggest that the Malaysian Airlines Boeing 777-200 would, assuming skies were clear at the time have appeared to those on the ground as a passenger plane as opposed to a military jet or transport plane.
Unsurprisingly Russia’s President Putin has been quick to blame Ukraine forces for bringing down the aircraft but I suggest that the overwhelming bulk of evidence that has appeared so far places this dreadful crime against humanity very firmly in the hands of Russian separatists that are being supported by Putin. For Russia this tragic incident is a game changer in how the nation will be seen by the rest of the world. It is also one that the world will never forgive. In diplomatic terms this really does now look bad for Russia and whilst I doubt that its leaders will walk away from continuing attempts to manipulate and destroy the well-earned freedom that Ukraine earned from its previous political masters, I suggest that the anger now felt by the international community following such a criminal act will leave Russia to be seen as a pariah state that is little different to the one that we also regard North Korea. I wonder too that having lost its place in the G-8 whether there might also be implications for Russia in the United Nations and particularly its membership of the Security Council.
We do not of course as yet know the origins of the surface to air missile strike meaning from which location the missile originated. But it is reasonable I believe to suggest that it was internally from within Ukraine as opposed to being from across the Russian border. Whether an independent investigation will ever be able to determine this is questionable and I rather suspect that Russia will also be busy pulling support operation professionals out of eastern Ukraine. Nevertheless, it is in my view inconceivable that even a hard line Russian president such as Putin would order destruction of civilian lives on such a vast scale.
The US, while acknowledging that the destruction of the Malaysian plane was no accident has so far been cautious in both words and resolve. Britain too has been careful to avoid making statements without having sufficient knowledge of events. Later today the UN Security Council is expected to hold an emergency meeting amid mounting calls for a thorough and transparent independent international investigation and one that Russia will of necessity need also to be fully accountable to ensure that no obstacles are placed in the way.
Whilst I am unclear, other than providing confirmation that the aircraft was destroyed and precise timing, it is crucial that what detail the ‘black box’ will be able to disclose is found and handed immediately to the independent investigators without any prior tampering. Given that we may expect further sanctions against Russia as a direct consequence of what has occurred in this tragedy the behaviour of the European Union and particularly Germany which has so far been against extending further sanctions on Russia due to its energy dependence on that nation.
The loss of 154 Dutch nationals, 27 Australians, 43 Malaysians, 12 Indonesians and nine Britons means this is a tragedy on an international scale and one that will not only demand answers from an independent investigation, but one that eventually there will be a very heavy price to pay by the perpetrators. Just as Lockerbie did, Malaysian Airlines Flight MH 17 will dominate headlines for years to come just as it will never be forgotten or forgiven by the families and friends of the almost three hundred people that so tragically lost their lives.
As to why the Malaysian Airlines aircraft was flying in such a volatile area when others had considered events in Ukraine to proffer danger to passenger safety and changed routes used I have no answer at this stage. But I can say that those of us that travelled regularly to the Middle and Far East during the troubled years of the eighties regularly travelled over hostile areas. Lockerbie was caused by a bomb on board but this is not the first time that passenger aircraft have been destroyed by shoulder or mobile vehicle launched missile systems although it is easily largest and we may hope the last.
For Malaysian Airways this is another significant tragedy but it is one that the airline will recover from. The Malaysian Government along with its people are not surprisingly in a state of tremendous shock from which it will be difficult and require time to recover. For the rest of us it is time to realise why we must remain acutely aware of potential danger wherever we are and that we can in this world take nothing for granted. Aviation has suffered a tragedy and criminal act on a massive scale but it is one from which more lessons will be learned and that it will recover.
CHW (London – 18 July 2014)
Howard Wheeldon RAeS
Tel: 07710 779785