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.          



General Soren said...

Just to play Occam's Razor's Advocate here, why is it out of the question to think that the rebels fired the missile at the 777 without realizing it *was* a 777?

I mean, the SA-11 launcher is stated to NOT have onboard IFF. So to the untrained eye, a 777 might easily be assumed to be a transport jet.

And let's be honest, nobody knows how much training the rebels have on the SA-11 systems, let alone whether or not they know how to visually ID at-altitude aircraft when the IFF can't.

And there's this report over two weeks before the shootdown (questionable source, maybe) that the rebels had seized an AA base:

Frankly, the only confusing part is why the missiles left, but it's easier to believe that Russia took those away from the rebels after the shootdown than to believe that Putin is behind some vast conspiracy. Especially because crimes depend on means, motive, and opportunity, and Putin has very little, if anything, to gain by drawing the West into this. His best-case scenario is that the rebels win, Ukraine backs off, and Russia absorbs rebel-held territory without (much) further fighting.

Conspiracies require a "Why?", and Putin has no more reason to shoot a civilian airliner down than the Ukrainians do. The rebels don't have a reason, either, but they certainly have a reason to target transport aircraft, and accidents happen. "It was a total mistake" answers the "Why?".

Nate Hale said...

General--the scenario you outline is plausible, but there are a few factors that hint at greater Russian involvement.

First, a number of civilian passenger jets transited the area in the days before the shootdown, on roughly the same heading/altitude block at MH17, yet they were not engaged. If you had a bunch of untrained separatists firing at anything they believed was a Ukrainian aircraft, why didn't they take a pot shot before the fateful engagment. Their "apparent" ability to separate potential targets from civilian aircraft (previously) suggests they had access to some sort of air picture, which would almost certainly have come from Russian forces, via data link.

That is not to say that Moscow sent a remote fire command to the SA-11 TELAR. The point of the post is the likelihood of integration/data exchange between Russian air defense units and the separatist SA-11 battery in the days/hours leading up to the shootdown, information that likely remains in the TELARs computers. If Russian SA-20s were active at the time of the shootdown, there would have been surveillance radars operating, along with the HHQ air defense command post that sorts and assigns targets. It would have been easy to share that info with the rebels, but of course, there is no guarantee they would accept it, and the TELAR commander still has final authority for launch. And if the Russians somehow screwed up the air tracks--and passed them to the rebels--that makes them directly involved, even if the incident was an accident.

General Soren said...

Fair points, but I still haven't seen a rational motive for Moscow to target MH17 and have the rebels appear as the first culprits.

The rebels initially claiming responsibility for the shootdown (they thought it was an AN-26) makes them look like they did it, what does Moscow gain from that?

The only people who could conceivably benefit from this would be Kiev, and only if they could pass it off as a rebel or Russian shootdown, bringing more external forces to bear on Moscow.

Putin may be a lot of things, and I can't speak to the man's character, but one thing he is not is a fool who would unite his enemy's against him.

Neil said...

Here's a low-probability answer to "why?"

This makes two Malaysian Air flights lost in the span of a few months, both of which were flying the 777, an aircraft with a superb safety record. MA is apparently rumored to have a...lackadaisical attitude, shall we say, towards the authenticity of identification papers and cargo manifests on its flights.

What if neither of these incidents was an accident, and the objective was to destroy someone or something on board each of the flights? Before you assume that the Russians would never kill 300 people as collateral damage, recall their operations in Beslan and Grozny, and consider whether they are likely to see any serious consequences from Europe and the U.S. as a result.

Personally, I think it's more likely that this was an accident. But I can't come up with a good reason to exclude this possibility, either.

sykes.1 said...

It is probable that the separatists shot down MH 17 in as much as they had already shot down a fighter/bomber and a military transport earlier. There need not be any Russian involvement other than providing the missiles, assuming they weren't captured from the Ukrainian forces. That the missiles were removed to Russia after the shoot-down merely indicates that the Russians decided they couldn't trust the separatists with such weapons.

If the separatists did it, the shoot-down was almost certainly accidental and unintended. However, if you apply the usual "cui bono" criterion, then the most likely suspect is the Ukrainian government itself, which obviously has benefited from this incident more than anyone else.

You might wish to remember that it is 2014, not 1962, and it is Obama v. Putin and not Kennedy v. Khrushchev. By the way, the USSR is gone, too.

C-Low said...

General Soren

I don't think it points a finger at Russia saying they had full intent to target the airliner. No I think what it points to is how Russia has given weapons to rebels and support in long range targeting that the rebels had no true ability to use safely.

The result is Russia gave initial possible target solution to the rebel Buk some rook sitting in the Buk sees a big blip just like those cargo planes they shot down earlier in the week so he pushed the button.

Russia is reckless and desperate giving the rebels such weapons and support. That is your why.

If I was Ukraine perhaps when this is all over maybe some of those captured rebel manpads could fall in the hands of some Chechens.