Sunday, July 20, 2014
One of the vehicles associated with Polyana-D mobile command post, used to direct Russian-made surface-to-air missile units. The system can be used to link SA-20 brigades with tactical SAMs, including the Buk complex, also known as the SA-11 "Gadfly." The system might have been used to feed air situation information from a Russian SA-20 unit to rebel SA-11s used to shoot down Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 (Wikipedia photo)
First came the horror of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17; nearly 300 passengers and crew blasted out of the sky by a surface-to-air missile, almost certainly launched by pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine. In the blink of an eye, a Boeing 777 was blown to pieces in a deliberate act, sending bodies and debris raining to earth.
Then came the debacle at the crash scene, "secured" by the same separatist elements who (reportedly) looted cash and credit cards from the wallets and purses of the victims. They refused to grant access to Ukrainian authorities and international investigators. The bodies of the dead lay in local fields (and in some cases, the homes of local residents) for two days, before pro-Russian elements began placing some in body bags and moving them to refrigerated rail cars.
Obviously, the deliberate contamination of crash debris and human remains will make it more difficult to confirm the shoot down of the Malaysian airliner by an SA-11 "Gadfly" missile battery. By controlling the crash scene, the separatists--and their allies in Moscow--can conceal or destroy evidence that would aid in that determination, by removing wreckage, personal effects and even bodies containing fragments from the missile's high-explosive warhead, or produce doctored reports suggesting that explosive debris came from an SA-11 missile belonging to Ukrainian air defense units.
But Moscow's involvement in the downing of Flight 17 may go beyond the provision of the SAM system to separatist elements and training for their missile crews. The Gadfly transporter-erector-launcher-and-radar (TELAR) which fired on the jetliner was quickly transported back to Russian territory; still images and video posted on social media showed at least two SA-11 TELARs on flatbed trucks leaving eastern Ukraine within 24 hours of the shoot-down; one of the launchers was missing two missiles, suggesting the doomed airliner may have been struck by multiple times. Use of flatbeds to transport a mobile missile system suggested the separatists--and their Russian allies--were in a hurry to get rid of that crucial piece of evidence.
If the TELAR had been transferred to the rebels--and used to down the jetliner--why was Moscow in such a hurry to get it back? Why not state that the separatists were acting on their own, and perpetuate the claim that rebel forces stole the SA-11 from a Ukrainian military base they recently seized? That spin might not get much traction in the world community, but it would play well at home and give Vladimir Putin the plausible deniability he is obviously seeking.
On the other hand, perhaps that SA-11 TELAR contains more evidence, aside from its missing missile(s). Like all modern SAM systems, the Gadfly is completely automated, with on-board computers that not only operate the TELAR, but also record its operational history.
In fact, the hard drives of that particular fire unit could provide a treasure trove of information, ranging from the time it began operations (in relation to the approaching jet); its location at the time of the engagement; the operational "mode" during the firing sequence--which can range from "manual" to fully automatic, and (perhaps most importantly), the provision of targeting information from outside sources.
Why is that important? Because the fire unit's on-board radar (nicknamed "Fire Dome" by NATO) is relatively limited at acquiring and identifying potential targets. The radar's scan is typically limited to a fairly narrow sector, both in azimuth and altitude, and the Fire Dome lacks an organic identification-friendo-or-foe (IFF) capability. That's why all SA-11 units are equipped with separate acquisition radars (such as the "Tube Arm") which sweep a much larger area; interrogate airborne tracks and assist operators in identifying potential targets.
But there have been no reports of acquisition radars with rebels' SA-11 TELARs that were operating in eastern Ukraine in recent days, and shot down several Ukrainian military aircraft in the run-up to the Flight MH17 disaster. That suggests the separatists were using their Fire Domes in an autonomous mode--which degrades their operational effectiveness--or they were receiving acquisition information from other sources, perhaps the Russian air defense system.
In the early hours after the Malaysian jet went down, U.S. officials said they weren't sure if the 777 was destroyed by an SA-11 or an SA-20. The distinction is very important; while the Gadfly is operated by all sides along the Ukraine conflict, the only SA-20s in that region belong to Russian air defense forces. The initial uncertainty by American intelligence officers suggest that a Russian SA-20 unit was active in the area at the time Flight MH17 fell from the sky.
At this point, there is no evidence that the airliner was shot down by an SA-20. And, no intelligence officials in the U.S. or Europe have stated--at least publicly--if there were communications between Russian air defense headquarters and the SA-11 TELARs operated by separatists. However, that type of interface is very common; in fact, Russia has developed two automated, mobile command posts (the Polyana D-4 and the Senezh) that can integrate the SA-11 into an SA-20 brigade. Both have been in service for a number of years, and their employment is a standard element of Russian SAM operations. Information from the higher-echelon C2 elements associated with the SA-20 unit is typically transmitted to SA-11 TELARs via landline or datalinks. Russian units may also issue an air situation broadcast (ASB) over dedicated frequencies for subordinate units.
Needless to say, it would be interesting to know if Polyana or Senezh-associated vehicles (and datalinks) were detected on either side of the border in the days before the shootdown. Data links are burst transmissions and can be difficult to intercept--let alone decrypt--but the SA-20 comments suggests that our collection systems detected radar and communications activity in the run-up to the destruction of the Malaysia Airlines jet. And, depending on how long the SA-20 had been operating in that area, analysts might have detected comm patterns between elements of the Russian SAM unit and, possibly, separatist-controlled SA-11 TELARs in eastern Ukraine.
Messages received by the SA-11 fire units would be stored on their computer hard drives--until they are removed and wiped clean. Obviously, Moscow wants to eliminate any evidence that might link their air defense network to separatist SAM units along the border.
This is not to say that Moscow--or one of its air defense commanders issued an order to down the Malaysian jet. But there is a high probability of integration and coordination between Russia's SAM units and their rebel counterparts, if (for no other reason) to prevent the separatists from engaging Russian aircraft and drones operating in the border region.
It's also important to note that a number of civilian airliners flew over the battle zone in the days before flight MH17 was destroyed, while rebel forces managed to knock down at least three Ukrainian military aircraft. The lack of accidental engagements before the Malaysia Airlines incident suggests the rebels were receiving some information on target identification and de-confliction--information that almost certainly came from Russian air defense forces. Was air situation data missing or flawed when the Malaysian 777 transited the area, or did a rebel commander simply choose to act on his own, without knowing what the target actually was?
The odds that Moscow ordered the shootdown are virtually nil. On the other hand, it would be surprising if Russian SAM units were not exchanging information with rebels operating those SA-11s. It's the type of relationship that Moscow is trying desperately to conceal, particularly if data from the Fire Dome's computers could document the data exchange, down to the most exacting detail.
No wonder the Russians were in such a hurry to take control of those TELARs.