July 17, 2014

The Ukraine airliner shootdown

There's only one thing you really need to know about the tragic loss of a Malaysian 777 airliner over Ukrainian territory today and that's this.

No civilian plane has ever been shot down before at modern day cruising altitudes, other than in mistaken attacks by state actors. There is no system readily available to any non-state armed force that can hit a plane at these altitudes.

When insurgents and guerrillas have attacked planes, it has invariably been on takeoff or approach to landing, when the plane is near to the ground and within the range of man-portable air defence missiles (aka MANPADs), mostly with infrared guidance, that can home in on a jet engine from a few thousand metres away, vertically or horizontally, at most. Were a man-portable missile to hit a jetliner in such circumstances, from that kind of close-to-tarmac firing point, it would tend to explode at a distance dictated by its built-in proximity fuze, shredding the one engine and potentially damaging other components. While obviously extremely dangerous, in most historical cases multi-engine aircraft crews have reacted to the engine loss and brought the plane out of danger in at least a semi-controlled manner. They almost certainly would have time to communicate, which was not the case here.

This is not what this shootdown today was, at all. This plane was destroyed at high altitude, by a massive explosion. Any missile that can do that, like the SA-11 Buk apparently used here is large, and radar-guided: meaning significant infrastructure and a trained team is required for its use. Whereas a standard shoulder launched missile has a 1kg explosive warhead, the SA-11 has a 70 kg warhead, capable of taking any plane out of the sky completely with one accurate hit, at any altitude.

An SA-11 launcher/radar (TELAR) vehicle is mobile, in the sense a tank is mobile: a tracked vehicle weighing over 24 tons. It's huge. The missiles are telephone poles: 18 feet long. This is what this rebel group was using to strike first a Ukrainian transport 3 days ago and now this unfortunate jet.

I don't doubt the rebels in this case committed an immense error, as they tried to keep the air above them clear of the Ukrainian military planes that have been beating up on them pretty badly lately. (Russia's increasing attempts to impose some kind of no-fly zone over Ukraine to help them, shooting down a Ukrainian ground attack jet this week, are the other way Ukraine is being challenged in the air right now.) The very fact this happened at all indicates their crews weren't particularly well-versed in airspace control and defense the way a real anti-aircraft detachment would be... which suggests this was probably some poorly trained yahoos on stolen or loaned gear, not an organized Russian unit.

Which leads one to conclude that civil aviation authorities really dropped the ball here. Because the Ukrainians reported the loss of a military transport to surface-to-air fire three days ago in the same area, flying at the same civil aviation altitudes (6,500m in this story). That should have led to an immediate reassessment by all airlines and agencies of the threat here. A kill at 6,500m is not achievable with insurgent-type weapons: it meant a radar guided system, professional military-grade, right there. Which meant it was highly likely 3 days ago someone in that area, not responding to any clear national chain of command, had a system capable of shooting down airliners and was actively using it to deny that airspace. It was the smoking gun/red phone moment for any airline intelligence analyst and they all apparently failed to raise any kind of alarm anywhere near quickly enough.

All adverse military effects are going to be called "intelligence failures" by somebody. Comes with the trade. But this was a Challenger-shuttle level example of cross-institutional inability to react to new and changing information. Absolutely, blame the Ukrainian rebels. But save a little blame for Ukraine, who should have stated more strongly that, given the threat 3 days ago, all planes flying in that area were now in jeopardy and should be diverted around the area, and for the airline officials who put an incredible number of lives at risk by failing to respond appropriately and promptly to one of the most obvious threat warnings they were ever likely to see. Someone needed to be screaming from the rooftops on Monday that a major international air route was seriously jeopardized this week, and someone in Malaysian Airlines needed to have been listening. What the hell, ICAO? What the hell, FAA? WTF, EASA? The fact Fallows can't find a relevant FAA warning for the actual Donetsk area (as opposed to the Crimea ones he did find) even before the Ukrainian transport was shot down, let alone after, despite repeated attempts to help from commenters, is indicative here: no one picked up on this particular alarm bell.

For the last 50 years of air travel, airliners have benefited from being too high to be affected by ground battles. So long as they obeyed the wishes of governments that wished you to stay out of an area and state-on-state warzones where radar weapons and jet fighters were in play, and didn't land at airports with rebels at the end of the runway, they could always cruise serenely above the fray, along whatever rhumb line saved them the most time and money. It was that complacency that killed these people, almost as much as the rebel who pressed the launch button on a radar hit he probably didn't even really understand.

See also David Cenciotti for a slightly different take. It's just appalling that Ukraine didn't immediately revise their altitude limitation on that airspace up from the 32,000 feet ceiling it was at this week. The way these things work, if you can kill at 20,000', you can kill at 40,000', or 60,000'. A 32,000' limit only makes sense if the defined threat is infrared shoulder launched infrared missiles, with a big, big margin of error (really, a kill at 10,000' with a man-portable missile would be nearly impossible). To fly planes at 33,000', right above that,indicated Malaysian Airlines understood that to be the most likely threat scenario, one that effectively had no impact on your flight financially because you would likely have been above that altitude in midflight anyway. If you have a current-technology vehicle-mounted radar-guided system like the Buk in play though, no altitude is too high, and diversion (and extra flight miles) is the only option. Which of course Ukraine got around to doing today. Appalling.

UPDATE: I suppose the one bit of good news is Western intelligence agencies by tonight will have undoubtedly done the obvious triangulation of the two reported attack sites and concluded it's extremely unlikely this involved any launchpoint on actual Russian territory, for what that's worth. The jet was probably picked up as it crossed into Donetsk People's Republic "soil", headed southeast and engaged as it passed north of Donetsk city proper. Russia's too far away.

SILLY EXPERTS WATCH #1: Norman Shanks: “At that height – just over 30,000ft – those on the ground would have been able to tell it was a civilian aircraft and not a military aircraft... The shape and size would have given a strong indication and they may have been able to see jet plumes behind it.” Bull. For starters, they wouldn't have waited until they could have seen the thing. It was a radar contact to them, possibly the wrong one of two, but just a blip. When the plane was detected, it was likely 100 km out, approaching at 1000 km/h. The whole engagement from acquisition to destruction would have lasted about 5 minutes. When the missile went off the launcher, the plane would have still been 20 or more km away, on an approaching vector: too far to distinguish visually. I actually suspect they were trying to engage a different target and screwed up/missed. They should have been able to pick out the passenger liner from the Ukrainian An-26 they apparently thought it was, anyway though, purely based on altitude (the An-26 can't fly above 25,000') and speed (about half that of a 777). Again, a fully trained crew wouldn't make that kind of mistake.

SILLY EXPERTS WATCH #2: Charles Heyman: “I doubt the transport plane [on Monday] was flying at 6,500 metres. That doesn’t make sense. The higher you fly, the more it costs, and the plane would have had to be pressurized,” Heyman said. “It was probably shot down using SAM-6 missiles owned by the rebels, which they have quite a few of.” That's clearly a typo. He meant "SA-16" or "SA-7" there: man portable missiles, in other words, engaging at low altitude. I would actually argue if I was flying over an area infested with man portable missiles that I would tend to fly at higher altitudes, as the US did in Iraq. His point, that the Ukrainian government statement that the rebels could now engage planes at high altitude, was some form of deception, is a good example of the intelligence people getting their analysis on this wrong and pooh-poohing the threat to civil aviation, contributing to a greater failure 3 days later. I wonder if he's revised his opinion at all on this one.

Posted by BruceR at 11:17 PM