The apparent downing of a Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 in eastern Ukraine is a major tragedy but not necessarily an intentional one. While the Ukrainian government is accusing the pro-Russian separatists in the east and already referring to it as a “terrorist attack” that is part of “a war of good against evil,” another explanation is that the downing was accidental. While any analysis is at present tentative it is worth highlighting what this incident illustrates both about the military situation in Ukraine and about accidental downing of aircraft.
In terms of the military balance in Ukraine, the past month has seen a major increase in the air defense capabilities of the separatists. According to one report they have downed at least 10 Ukrainian aircraft, including helicopters, transport planes, and ground attack jets. While some of these aircraft may have been downed by so-called MANPADS (an acronym for Man-Portable Air Defense Systems), which are light shoulder-fired missiles, the increased capability suggests that the separatists are now using larger and more sophisticated systems.
This would certainly be true if the separatists did shoot down the Malaysia Airlines flight, which was reported to be at an altitude of at least 30,000 feet. This altitude is beyond the range of most MANPADs. For example, the most common MANPADS in the Russian arsenal have a range of roughly 3-5 miles (17,000-26,000 feet). Only a much larger system would be capable of engaging such a high flying aircraft.
The Ukrainians have accused the separatists of downing the plane with a vehicle mounted system, the 9K37 “Buk” (Russian for “beech”). The Buk (also known by its NATO designation SA-11 Gadfly) has an engagement range of at least 15 miles so it is certainly plausible as the culprit.
But the Buk is much more sophisticated than a MANPADS. It is typically operated as a set of four vehicles: a command post vehicle, a target acquisition radar vehicle, the missile launch vehicle (which has its own targeting radar), and a support vehicle. Orchestrating this system requires more training than the relatively straightforward operation of MANPADS.
Such systems are also more difficult to acquire, as they are not widely distributed across military units. Instead they are normally concentrated it specialized air defense units. This combination of relative concentration and high sophistication makes it less likely that separatists could have captured a Buk in the past month and would then be able to successfully operate it.
Instead it seems more likely that the Buk was provided by Russia along with any necessary training. This is supported by U.S. and Ukrainian reports last month that Russia had provided tanks and other heavy equipment to the separatists. Notably both the tanks alleged to have been provided (T-64s) and the Buk are older Soviet-era equipment that Russia would not miss but would also be plausibly present in Ukrainian arsenals. This allows the Russians to retain a figleaf of plausible deniability about the equipment.
Yet if the separatists had received training on a fairly sophisticated system, why would they fail to identify the Malyasia Airlines flight as civilian? Most aircraft have a transponder to identify them when they are interrogated by a radar. Unfortunately the accidental downing of aircraft is rare but not unheard of, even for professional military organizations. In 2003 a U.S. Patriot missile battery shot down a British Tornado jet during the early stages of the Operation Iraqi Freedom.
As Scott Snook describes in his book Friendly Fire, there are usually multiple independent but connected causes for failure in such cases. Snook walks through the series of events leading accidental downing by U.S. F-15 jet fighters of two U.S. helicopters over northern Iraq in 1994. In particular he highlights the psychological impact of expectations, where pilots expected to see Iraqi helicopters and therefore visually misidentified U.S. Blackhawk helicopters as Iraqi Hind helicopters. Combined with other weaknesses in both the technology and organization for identifying aircraft in northern Iraq, this misidentification led to tragedy.
If the U.S. Army and Air Force have had challenges with identifying their own or allied aircraft, even visually, then it is entirely possible that separatists failed to appropriately identify the Malaysia Airlines flight. The separatists, having had significant success over the past month in downing Ukrainian military aircraft, were no doubt enthusiastic for more success. At the same time the recent advances by the Ukrainian military against the separatists likely had them on edge, expecting any aircraft approaching them from the west (as a flight from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur probably was) to be Ukrainian military. Fear and excitement, combined with other limitations in older Soviet technology and possibly limited training, could therefore have led to another tragedy.
This conclusion, though plausible, is nonetheless tentative. The separatists may not have been responsible. But the tragedy underscores that the military balance in Ukraine remains fluid and contested, with civilians both on the ground and in the air reaping the consequences.
Austin Long is an Assistant Professor of Political and International Affairs at Columbia. Previously, he was an associate political scientist for the RAND Corporation, serving in Iraq as an analyst and advisor to the Multinational Force Iraq and the U.S. military.