October 13, 2015
By Petri Krohn
The official report of the Dutch Safety Board (DSB) on the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 is expected to be released today. Here are some things to look for in the report.
The basic principle of any air accident investigation is the principle of sequence of conclusions. First study the damage and only then make conclusion on what may have caused it.
In the case of MH17 the core of the technical investigation must be a database of all the impact holes and craters in the MH17 fuselage created by the “high energy objects”. The database must list the coordinates of the hole in the fuselage and the direction of impact. It is already evident that this dataset will point to a single origin of all impacts; a warhead exploded about 1 meter above the left (port) side cockpit window. Most of the damage is inside a cone of 2 meter diameter, the shrapnel only scratched the right (starboard) side and lower side of the cockpit. The the pilot was most likely instantly killed by this shrapnel.
Even though the the DSB has conducted its investigation in almost total secrecy – the UN Security Council never mandated an open and transparent investigation – independent researchers have been able to reach these same conclusion based on photo evidence. A number of theories that emerged soon after the crash have been debunked. There is no sign of autocannon, of multiple hits from different sides of the cockpit, no exit holes on the cockpit walls, no explosions inside fuselage.
Location of warhead detonation relative to the cockpit. (Source)
The next step in the investigation is to establish the exact point of the detonation. Knowing the point of origin and all the impacts it is possible to create a (partial) shrapnel pattern. After mapping this pattern to a suitable map projection it should be compared to shrapnel patterns of known missile types. It the warhead is of a known type it is possible to establish the position and angle of the warhead at the time of detonation.
It is unlikely that the Dutch Safety Board will try to assign guilt. However, if they follow the reasoning and use technical data provided by the BUK missile manufacturer Almaz-Antey they should be able to establish the direction the missile was coming from and narrow down the launch site.
Assuming the warhead turns out to be a BUK, then the likely launch site is at the location of a known Ukrainian BUK battery in Zaroshchenskoye, some 10 km south of Shakhtarsk. Evidence for this BUK site includes a satellite photo released by the Russian Ministry of Defense and a tactical map of the Ukrainian 95th separate airmobile brigade captured by the Donetsk People’s Republic forces.
Location of Ukrainian BUK battery in Zaroshchenskoye, south of Shakhtarsk as seen on Ukrainian tactical map
A small number of photo and video evidence exist on social media for a “rebel” BUK launcher moving to Snezhnoe (Snizhne) on July 17. All of the evidence is anonymous, none is available in original form or original quality, all lack metadata. The authenticity of this evidence has been questioned. It has been argued that they in fact constitute a trail of planted evidence. Most importantly, the forensic evidence is likely to exclude Snezhnoe as a possible BUK launch site.
It could be argued that both the plane and the missile changed course before impact. This possibility is excluded by the flight data recorders that show no change in course or even knowledge of the missile before the catastrophic breakup of the fuselage.
What if the missile is not a BUK?
The damage to the fuselage and the cockpit is lighter than one would expect if 70 kg of high explosives were detonated just one meter away.
Preliminary data leaked from the report says that the weight of the warhead was no more than 33 kg, and the main warhead was equipped with between 3,000 and 4,000 ‘pre-formed fragments’ (flechettes) that weighed around 3g each.
The BUK-M1 has a 70 kg warhead with 7860 pieces of shrapnel, one fourth of them weighting 8.1 grams. No known surface-to-air missile with a matching warhead can reach the height of 10 km.
This leaves only a few air-to-air missile types.
- The R-60 missile most commonly seen on Su-25s is likely too small. With IR homing it would aim for the engines, not the cockpit.
- The long range R-27 is the right size but is only known to exist with a rod warhead. Ukraine claimed on July 16, 2014 that one or two of its Su-25s shot down that day was hit by a Russian R-27 missile fired from a Russian jet in Russian airspace. A feasible scenario is that Russians similarly targeted a Ukrainian Su-25 on July 17. When targeted, the Ukrainian jet would climb behind MH17 for cover and cause the missile to hit the airliner instead.
- The most detailed technical analysis of the shrapnel damage published so far concludes that it is the result of an Israeli Python missile. This report by Russian independent investigators lists over 220 shrapnel holes in the fuselage. The missile type has been seen on Ukrainian Su-25s.