By Ken Perrott 15/10/2015


The final technical report from the Dutch safety Board on the crash of Malaysian flight MH17 in Eastern Ukraine has just been released. You can download your copy here or go to the Final report page which also provides links to the appendices. (Warning – I don’t think this URL is permanent).

Having discussed the previous preliminary report here, and got into a debate on responsibility for the crash, I feel the need to make at least some comment on the final report. My comments will be brief – I have so far not read the complete document. The report is 280 pages long, and there are extra, important, appendices (I think about 26 in total) which are also quite lengthy. Very few people will invest the time to get their head around all these.

So, my five observations:

1. Its very technical

Well – it could be worse. The report itself does leave the details to appendices – and doesn’t give even appendices for some of the evidence. This video of a recent press conference by the Russian Arms manufacturer gives an idea if the complexity of the issue (made worse in this case by having to rely on an oral English translation). Skip through to the middle if you want to avoid the formal introductions.

2: Blame

This technical investigation did not have the task of apportioning blame – that is the subject of a later report (probably next year) from the criminal investigation group. However, the Ukrainian Government does get the obvious blame for allowing commercial flights  over a war zone – moreover a zone where planes were regularly being shot down. The lessons about this are probably the most important, and of most interest to potential airline passengers. The report makes some recommendations on this

3: The most likely scenario involves a surface-to-air missile

While the report is definitive about this it effectively relies on two assumptions:

  • Most of the likely air-to-air missiles stationed in the area do not contain the “pre-formed elements” (shrapnel) of the shapes found in the crash debris and the bodies of the flight crew.
  • There were no other aircraft in the area at the time. I couldn’t find any mention of the Russian primary radar data released soon after the crash which did suggest two other aircraft were present (these would not necessarily have shown up on the secondary air-traffic control radar if they were military). This was referred to in the preliminary report (see MH17 – Preliminary report leaves most conspiracy theories intact).

So, I don’t think the air-air missile scenario is definitely excluded but the surface-to-air missile scenario seems most likely and that is what was tested in computer simulations.

4: A Buk missile with a specific warhead was most likely used

This was based on the recovery of “preformed elements” from bodies of the crew and the aircraft debris. Bow-tie, and square elements were found. The 9N314M warhead contains such elements.

Interestingly the missiles on the Buk-1 system (used by the Ukrainian armed forces use this warhead, but not the missiles on the Buk-2 system (used by the Russian federation armed forces).

The manufacture of the Buk systems, Almaz-Antey, claim the preformed elements found show an even earlier warhead was used, rather than the 9N314M. These warheads are no longer used in the Russian Federation as they are past their use-by date. But the manufacturer had reported servicing the older Buk systems own by Ukraine in the last 10 years.

5: Aircraft damage used to find possible missile trajectory

Simulation modelling was used to find the likely missile trajectory and launch region. The modelling was done by two Dutch groups (NLR & TNO), a forensic group in the Ukrainian Ministry of Justice and the Almaz-Antey company (the manufacturer). While all groups produced similar results  using the NLR/TNO data the Almaz-Antey group found a different missile orientation and locality on detonation using their own collected data.

This difference is immaterial for the purposes of this report but will be important for the criminal investigation.

Incidentally, Almaz-Antey have tested their computer simulations using field experiments involving detonation of a missile near typical material used in construction of the plane and, more recently, the front section of a decommissioned plane very similar to the Boeing. They reported in the press conference in the above video that the experiments vindicated their simulation results. However, the last experiment came too late to influence the Dutch safety Board Report.

Conclusion

No one expected identification of the forces responsible for shooting down flight MH17 in this report – and this is not the task of the Dutch Safety Board. More information apportioning blame should appear in the report from the Criminal investigation Team next year.

The report drew some conclusions about how authorities and airlines should handle the problem of flights over areas of conflict. Hopefully, this will make airline travel safer in future.

In my mind, a scenario involving an air-to-air missile was not completely ruled out (and perhaps the report should have been more qualified about this). However, a surface-to-air missile appears most likely.

So, two of the scenarios (involving attack aircraft) I suggested in my article on the preliminary report, MH17 – Preliminary report leaves most conspiracy theories intact, are most likely ruled out. The remaining scenario I mentioned was that the plane was downed by a surface-to-air missile launched by armed forces of the Kiev government, the Russian Federation or the opposition pro-autonomy militias.

The old warhead suggests that armed forces of the Russian federation were not involved and most probably rules out the social media story of a Russian Buk system being brought in specifically for the attack and then quickly removed.

I think this leaves either the armed forces of the Kiev government (Ukrainian army) or the Donetsk and Luhansk regions fighting for autonomy. The Ukrainian army is known to have weapons of this sort while both Kiev and the rebels claimed the rebels did not.

However, there is evidence that the rebels had either captured one or more Buk systems, or had obtained them via defection of military from the Ukrainian army (on the other hand reports from both the rebels and the Ukrainian side have claimed that at least one captured system was not operational).

So, still too early to claim we know who shot down MH17.

But, of course, that won’t stop the politically motivated blame game that has been going on in the international media (and promoted by some governments) ever since the plane hit the ground.