Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 Most Likely Hit by Russian-Made Missile, Inquiry Says

PARIS, France -- A 15-month inquiry into the disintegration of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 in the skies over eastern Ukraine has concluded that the aircraft was most likely struck by a Russian-made missile, Dutch air accident investigators said on Tuesday.

The findings — based in part on a distinctive shrapnel pattern that was found in the cockpit, near where the missile hit — come from a five-nation investigative team that retrieved and sifted through several tons of debris and human remains and even reconstructed the aircraft as part of its study.

For many, the disaster brought home a struggle that had seemed distant.

“Flight MH17 crashed as a result of the detonation of a warhead outside the airplane above the left-hand side of the cockpit,” said Tjibbe Joustra, chairman of the Dutch Safety Board, using a common reference to the flight number.

The explosion tore off the forward part of the plane, which broke up in the air.

The crash killed all 298 people aboard; the investigation found that many died instantly, while others quickly lost consciousness.

“It is likely that the occupants were barely able to comprehend their situation,” the board found.

While the findings stop short of assigning responsibility for the crash, a task that has been left to Dutch prosecutors, they appear consistent with a theory widely promoted by the authorities in the United States and Ukraine: that the plane, a Boeing 777, was shot down by Russian-backed separatists armed with an SA-11, or Buk, surface-to-air missile launcher.

Russia has vehemently disputed that theory, and it continued to do so on Tuesday with a competing presentation, saying that the missile must have been fired from Ukrainian-held territory, and that it was of a type that is no longer found in Russia’s arsenal.

The report on the July 17, 2014, crash was presented at the Gilze-Rijen Air Base in the Netherlands.

The 283 passengers and 15 crew members on the flight, which was en route to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, from Amsterdam, came from about a dozen countries; 193 of the passengers were Dutch. 

The board was sharply critical of the Ukrainian authorities for failing to close the airspace above the conflict zone.

It found that 160 civil aviation flights went through on the day of the crash, until the airspace was closed.

“Why was Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 flying over an area where an armed conflict was taking place?” Mr. Joustra asked.

“The question was on the minds of many people after the crash. The answer was as straightforward as it is disquieting: almost all operators were flying over that area. And why? Because nobody thought that civil aviation was at risk.”

There was sufficient reason to close the airspace as a precaution, but “the Ukrainian authorities failed to do so,” he said.

The report is unlikely to produce consensus.

Based on the impact pattern, the impact angle and other data, the Dutch board concluded that the missile originated in an area of about 320 square kilometers (about 123 square miles) in eastern Ukraine.

But Russian experts say the area must be smaller, and Ukrainian experts say it was smaller still.

The team of investigators was led by the Netherlands but included members from four other countries heavily affected by the crash: Australia, Belgium, Malaysia and Ukraine.

While the new report was not surprising — and is consistent with preliminary findings the safety board released a year ago — it is likely to increase geopolitical pressure on Russia.

The Kremlin has denied any involvement in arming separatist fighters in eastern Ukraine or the shooting down of the Malaysia Airlines flight.

Prime Minister Najib Razak of Malaysia, which had 43 citizens on the plane, said on Tuesday that “we now know that the plane was hit by a Russian-made Buk missile fired from rebel-held territory in eastern Ukraine.”

He urged “the strongest action possible against those responsible” and promised that “Malaysia will remain steadfast until those behind this heinous act are made to pay for their crimes.”

In addition to studying the causes of the crash, the Dutch report examined the delay in confirming the identities of those on board — in some cases, relatives waited as long as 14 days to get confirmation — and shortcomings in the systems that governments have in place for communicating risks to commercial airliners when flying over conflict zones.

While the new report was not intended to assign blame, the Dutch board made public a telltale detail: investigators had discovered tiny pieces of shrapnel in a distinctive shape, which has been compared to a butterfly, a bowtie or an hourglass.

The board said it had extracted butterfly-shaped shrapnel from the body of a pilot, allowing investigators to identify the type of warhead used: 9N314M, a model used to arm two common variants of the Buk, the 9M38 and the 9M38-M1.

The 9N314M shrapnel pattern is now very much at the core of the debate over who is to blame for shooting down the plane.

Throughout the summer — as the approach of the report neared — the company that makes the Buk missile system, Almaz-Antey, asserted that no evidence had been found at the crash site in Ukraine of shrapnel of this shape, which they described as an “I-beam” form.

On Tuesday, the company said that, as an experiment, it had detonated the type of warhead the Dutch safety board said had brought down the airplane, the 9N314M, beside a decommissioned Il-86 airplane.

The intent, it said, was to demonstrate that if such a warhead were used, many bowtie-shaped pieces of shrapnel would lodge in the debris.

And yet in fact, this is exactly what the Dutch board said it had discovered in the bodies of the cockpit crew.

Analysts said that both Buk variants could be found in Russian and Ukrainian arsenals, although Russia insists that they were withdrawn from active service several years ago.

“This is not true,” Nick de Larrinaga, the European editor of IHS Jane’s Defense Weekly, said Tuesday when asked about the Russian claims.

He said that both Buk types and their launchers had been on display during Russian military parades and exercises in recent years.

“It’s possible that they could have been withdrawn from front-line service, but they could still be in reserve service,” Mr. de Larrinaga said in a phone interview from London.

He added that a significant amount of older Russian military hardware had made its way to the battlefield during the Ukrainian conflict.

Mr. de Larrinaga said that while the Dutch findings did not make it possible to categorically rule out the possibility that the missile that hit Flight 17 might have been of Ukrainian origin, he said other elements of the investigation pointed “conclusively” to the scenario that the plane was shot down by pro-Russian separatists.

“There is no plausible military reason, why this aircraft — which had been flying for some time over Ukrainian territory already — would have been considered a threat by Kiev,” Mr. de Larrinaga said. 

But, he said, the shooting down of Flight 17 fits with a pattern in the weeks preceding the disaster of Russian-backed rebels shooting down Ukrainian military aircraft entering rebel-controlled territory from the west.

The crash has highlighted concerns among aviation authorities about the risks posed to civilian aircraft by missiles fired from the ground.

Little more than a week after the crash, American and European regulators briefly banned their airlines from flying to and from Ben-Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv after a missile fired from Gaza landed near it.

The European Aviation Safety Agency recently published a warning to airlines alerting them to the potential risks of flying through portions of Iranian and Iraqi airspace after Russian warships in the Caspian Sea fired cruise missiles into territory held by the Islamic State in Syria.

Source: The New York Times