What the Dutch Safety Board Report Tells Us About the Downing of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17
November 2, 2015
Last month, the Dutch Safety Board (DSB) released its long-awaited report on the tragic downing of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 (MH17) over Eastern Ukraine on July 17, 2014. This catastrophe, which cost the lives of all 298 passengers and crew (193 of whom were Dutch nationals) also intensified the spotlight on the expanding conflict in Eastern Ukraine. The downing of MH17 led to increased condemnation of Russia’s support for the armed rebels operating in the Donbas region as well as enhanced sanctions against Russia itself. Since the incident occurred, the main parties to the Ukraine conflict have engaged in a vigorous information campaign featuring dueling narratives, with each side attempting to either cast or deflect blame. Settling this controversy has been one of the principal reasons that the DSB report has been so eagerly anticipated.
Unfortunately, the report does not directly answer the most important question surrounding the whole tragic affair, namely just who is to blame for the incident. Of course, as the report itself acknowledges up front, attributing blame was not part of the DSB’s charter, as that question has been left to the determination of a separate international criminal investigation. ( DSB, page 7) Still it does a great service by providing important factual detail regarding the circumstances surrounding the flight as well as critical forensic analysis of the nature of the explosion that caused the airliner’s destruction. In the process, the report rules out a host of potential alternative explanations, including some espoused by Russia at one time or another, while confirming in a clear and convincing manner that the plane was likely destroyed by a Russian-built Buk SA-11 surface-to-air missile. Based on these results as well as additional findings that the missile was most likely launched from rebel-controlled territory, the report implicitly provides strong support for the conclusion, already widely-held, that MH17 was in fact taken down by Russian-backed rebels.
In reaching its findings, the report’s analysis is clear, analytical and persuasive, while at the same time representing a remarkable piece of detective work. The DSB’s findings are all the more remarkable given the formidable obstacles it had to overcome in completing the investigation, where even such basic requirements as gaining access to the various crash sites located in an area of armed conflict proved to be enormously challenging.
The report begins by confirming earlier reports that the plane did not crash as a result of mechanical failure or pilot error. External monitoring and recorded flight data indicate that right up until the time it disappeared from the radar screen, MH17 was operating properly at its assigned flight altitude, was flying generally on the right heading, was engaging in routine flight communications, and was exhibiting no signs of operational problems. The post-crash investigation then methodically rules out various other potential causes such as structural failure, internal fire, on-board explosion, and even lightning and meteor strikes, all of which the DSB found to be inconsistent with both the events surrounding the incident and the kinds of damage that the plane sustained. Focusing instead on the distinct pattern of perforations visible on the forward fuselage and in the cockpit area, the investigators concluded that the aircraft had suffered from blast damage and had “been penetrated by a large number of high-energy objects [originating] from outside the aircraft.” (DSB, page 17)
The investigators then demonstrated that this damage could not have come from an air-to-air missile, assome in Russia have asserted, because according to data from both Ukrainian and Russian ground tracking radars, no other military aircraft capable of firing such a missile were operating in the vicinity. Moreover, according to the investigators, the kinds of perforations visible on the aircraft were inconsistent with those that would have been produced by an air-to-air missile. Air-to-air missiles, in some cases, destroy their target in a shower of iron rods created when the missile explodes. But no such rods were found in any of the MH17 wreckage. Other kinds of air-to-air missiles operate by spreading shrapnel when the missile explodes. Use of such a missile can often be traced back to its source by examining the kinds of shrapnel found in the aircraft wreckage and then comparing it with that produced by a representative missile. But according to the DSB, in the case of MH17, none of the air-to-air missiles commonly used in the region were capable of producing the kind of “bow-tie" shaped fragmentation found in the MH17 wreckage.
The report concludes therefore that a surface-to-air missile (SAM) must have been used to bring down MH17. According to its analysis, use of a SAM best fits the circumstances surrounding the MH17 disaster. First, while the airspace around MH17 was free of other military aircraft, the report notes that a SAM could have passed through that airspace without detection by ground-based radar because of its small size and high velocity. Moreover, a long-range SAM capable of reaching the altitude at which MH17 was flying would typically carry a warhead large enough to produce the kinds of blast and fragmentation damage exhibited in the MH17 wreckage. It would have been highly unlikely for an air-to-air missile, which is generally much smaller, to produce the same level of damage.
Having determined that a SAM was the most likely cause of the disaster, the report turns next to an evaluation of just what kind of SAM was most likely to have been involved. Using sophisticated analytical techniques as well as a good deal of ingenuity, the DSB investigators ultimately concluded that a Russian-made Buk missile was the most likely culprit. First, the investigators examined certain foreign objects found at the wreckage sites, all of which were suspected to be related to a surface-to-air missile system. They then compared those objects with known components from a 9M38-series Russian Buk missile and found that they were consistent. The report even contains photos of three of these objects placed alongside a diagram showing where such objects would have been found on an actual Buk missile. ( DSB, pages 80-81) Furthermore, investigators concluded that the kind of fragmentation present in the MH17 wreckage could only have come from a Buk missile. Specifically, they contend, the presence of both “bow-tie” and “cubic” shaped fragments in the fuselage of MH17 as well as the bodies of selected crew members strongly indicates that a Buk missile was involved because no other commonly-used warhead in the region contains pre-formed explosive projectiles having those particular shapes. ( DSB, page 132)
While the Dutch investigators clearly have presented a powerful and persuasive case regarding the nature and likely cause of the MH17 incident, Russian officials and investigators continue to dispute several of the report’s key findings. For example, the DSB report implies that the Russians continue to claim that the MH17 disaster could have been caused by an air-to-air missile. ( DSB: “About the Investigation,” Appendix L ) Russian representatives participating in the DSB investigation maintain this argument despite having previously agreed with the DSB that MH17 was most likely to have been brought down by a surface-to-air missile. Their position as stated in the DSB Report is that it is impossible to determine precisely the kind of missile or warhead used to bring down MH17, noting inconsistencies between their own tests and those conducted by the DSB regarding the location of the detonation, the way in which the fragments spread after detonation, and the direction from which these fragments perforated the airplane. ( DSB: “About the Investigation,” Appendix L ) The DSB report effectively rebuts this argument, however, by pointing to flaws in the Russian testing methodology, while once again noting that an air-to-air missile would have been too small to have created the kind of damage exhibited in the MH17 fuselage. ( DSB: “About the Investigation,” Appendix L )
The Russians also contend that it was erroneous for the DSB to conclude that MH17 was taken down by a 9M38 Buk missile carrying a 9N314M warhead. They argue that the DSB relied too heavily on the presence of a small number of “cubic” and “bow-tie” shaped fragments found in the MH17 wreckage to conclude that a Buk missile was involved. Here the Russians are on stronger ground. While it is true that the presence of fragments having such a pre-formed shape is consistent with use of a Buk missile, the report itself concedes that only four such fragments were found, out of over 500 missile fragments of all kinds that were eventually recovered from the plane’s wreckage.( DSB, page 95; DSB, “About the Investigation,” page 96 ) And even those four fragments, the report admits, were “heavily deformed and damaged.” ( DSB, page 95) While the DSB argues in response that only a small fraction of the Buk missile’s pre-formed fragments would have been likely to have hit the plane, when by their own admission over 500 fragments of all kinds were found in the plane’s wreckage and a large proportion of these were suspected to be high energy objects likely to have originated from a missile, a finding of just four of the distinctively-shaped fragments in the wreckage seems disproportionately low. Therefore, the DSB might have done a better job of explaining just why the presence of such a small number of suspiciously-shaped objects was as evidentially significant as the report seems to imply.
Fortunately, the DSB does not rely exclusively on the presence of the distinctively-shaped fragments to make the case that MH17 was taken down by a Russian-made Buk missile. As previously mentioned, the investigators also found various foreign objects in the wreckage that appear to be components from a Buk missile, and images of three of those components are actually included in the report. Moreover, the report hints that more such components may have been found in the wreckage, but that relevant details could not be openly discussed for fear of jeopardizing the ongoing criminal investigation. In addition, traces of paint found on several fragments recovered from the wreckage match that found on these missile components. The findings that a Buk missile was responsible were also supported by the results of various simulations conducted by or on behalf of the DSB. These simulations and other analysis demonstrate that of all the scenarios tested, a Buk missile best fit the circumstances and evidence collected by the DSB in connection with the investigation, including especially the damage pattern on the wreckage. Finally, the Russians, by their own admission, acknowledged at the second progress meeting conducted in May 2015, “that the missile concerned was equipped with a warhead as found in missiles installed on Buk firing systems.” ( DSB, “About the Investigation”, page 20 ) Although the Russians might argue that they did not intend this statement to rule out other possibilities, it stands as important evidence that even the Russian delegation considered the Buk to be a strong contender at least at the time of that meeting.
While the DSB report has answered one of the main questions regarding the MH17 incident, namely what caused the disaster, the central question of which party is ultimately responsible was left to the determination of the ongoing parallel criminal investigation. And in many ways, the DSB report simply provides more grist for the propaganda mill for both sides. Western and Ukrainian leaders have already begun to use the report’s findings that a Buk missile was involved to point the finger squarely at Russia and its rebel allies in Eastern Ukraine. For example, U.S. National Security Council spokesperson Ned Price stated, “Our assessment is unchanged – MH17 was shot down by a surface-to-air missile fired from separatist territory in eastern Ukraine.” By implication, this statement also casts blame on Russia for the MH17 disaster for having provided Buk missile launchers to the separatists fighting in Eastern Ukraine. Moreover, although the DSB report does not indicate who actually fired the missile, it does narrow the location from which the missile was fired to a 320 square kilometer area in Eastern Ukraine. In a separate statement to reporters, DSB President Djibbe Joustra indicated that Russian-backed rebels were in charge of that area.
The Russians, for their part, have persisted in disputing the report’s central finding that a Buk missile was used to take down MH17. For example, Russia’s Federal Air Transport Agency complained that the DSB should not have excluded the possibility that MH17 was shot down by an air-to-air missile. Others have argued that, even if the DSB report’s findings were true that a Buk missile was used to down MH17, this proves little, because the report provides no real evidence that either Russia or any of the Russian-backed separatists actually fired the missile. In fact, in a rival press conference held in Moscow and timed to coincide with the release of the DSB report, Almaz-Antey, the manufacturer of the Buk missile has gone even further. Although it now agrees that a Buk missile was likely used to take down MH17, it contends that it must have been an older version of the Buk that is no longer in use by the Russian military, but one that is still used widely by the Ukrainian military. Almaz-Antey has further asserted that, according to its own analysis, the Buk missile that took down MH17 could only have been fired from territory controlled by Kyiv. The Russians have also been quick to remind the world that the Ukrainians are at least partially at fault for having kept the airspace over the Donbas region open to commercial air traffic in the midst of an increasingly intense military conflict that had recently expanded to include attacks by both sides in the surrounding skies, including long-range missile attacks in at least two cases.
Thus, while the DSB report certainly represents an important milestone on the road to determining just what happened to Malaysian Airlines Flight 17, it hardly constitutes the last word on the subject. Much more will be learned when the Joint Investigative Team that is conducting the criminal part of the investigation publishes its final report, currently expected to be released sometime in 2016.
Paul Schwartz is a senior associate with the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.
Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).
© 2015 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.