On Shooting Down Civilian Airliners

Yesterday, a Boeing 777 airliner belonging to Malaysian Airlines fell from the sky over the war zone that is Southeastern Ukraine, killing all 298 souls on board. This was not an accident, rather the huge jet was shot down, very likely by a 9K37 Buk (SA-11 to NATO) mobile surface-to-air missile system. Based on current reports, U.S. intelligence believes that the kill shot came from Russian-backed militias in the Donetsk area, inside the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic, which seems likely based on signals intelligence (SIGINT) intercepts made public by Ukraine’s Security Service, as well as the suspicious conduct of militia leaders themselves, who are controlled by Russian military intelligence. For Putin’s Kremlin, this is a public relations nightmare that will be impossible to evade. For Russian foreign policy, this is a genuine disaster, coming after a long string of victories in the Kremlin’s Special War in Ukraine. The cliched term “game changer” would seem to apply.

Much more will be coming out in the days ahead, but for now I want to note that shooting down civilian airliners, whether by accident or by design, sadly is more common than many people realize. Several incidents since the Second World War have resulted in major loss of life, starting with the shootdown of an El Al Lockheed Constellation in July 1955 by Bulgarian MiG-15s after the Israeli airliner strayed into Bulgarian airspace and refused orders to land; all fifty-eight passengers and crew died. Israel did something similar in February 1973 when a Libyan Airlines Boeing 727 strayed into Israeli-controlled airspace over the Sinai and refused orders to land; Israeli F-4 Phantoms shot it down, killing 113.

In September 1978, terrorists downed an Air Rhodesia Vickers Viscount with an SA-7 shoulder-launched missile; of the fifty-six passengers and crew, thirty-eight died in the crash, while ten more were brutally murdered by terrorists at the crash site. Only five months later, another Air Rhodesia Viscount was shot down by an SA-7 in the hands of terrorists, killing all fifty-nine passengers and crew on impact.

In a still mysterious case in June 1980*, an Aerolinee Itavia DC-9 was blasted from the sky off the Italian coast, killing all eighty-one aboard. The cause of the fatal explosion remains controversial. While the official Italian position, after several extended investigations, is that the DC-9 was downed by an air-to-air missile, fired during a never-admitted air battle between NATO and Libyan fighter jets, others claim that a terrorist bomb of unknown origin was the true cause.

The most infamous airliner shootdown, at least before yesterday, was the loss of Korean Airlines 007 in September 1983*, killing all 269 aboard, including a U.S. congressman, when it was downed by a Soviet Su-15 interceptor. This caused worldwide outrage and was a serious blow to the Soviet Union’s international image. The Boeing 747 was lost near Sakhalin island in the Russian Far East, having twice strayed into Soviet airspace due to an apparent navigational error. The Soviets, believing the 747 jumbo was a U.S. Air Force RC-135 spy plane, blasted it from the sky. The incident betrayed a very Soviet amalgam of brutality and incompetence. This was actually the second Korean Airlines jet shot down by the Soviets. In April 1978, a KAL Boeing 707 strayed into Soviet airspace near Murmansk, and did not respond to warnings, so was downed by two Su-15s. The Korean pilot managed to crash-land his damaged aircraft and miraculously only two passengers were killed.

In a tragic case that may have parallels with the loss of the Malaysian Boeing 777 over Ukraine, in July 1988, the U.S. Navy cruiser U.S.S. Vincennes shot down an Iran Air Airbus A300 over the Persian Gulf, killing all 290 passengers and crew*. This was the result of a tragic misunderstanding, as the Vincennes believed the airliner was an Iranian Air Force fighter closing in on it to attack, and the disaster occurred during the undeclared war between the United States and Iran that was being waged in the Persian Gulf throughout the spring and summer of 1988.

The former Soviet Union has witnessed all the major cases of civilian airliner shootdowns since the end of the Cold War. Over a three-day period in September 1993, Russian-backed Abkhaz separatists destroyed three Tupolev airliners belonging to Transair Georgia (two were shot down by missiles, one was hit by artillery fire while on the ground), killing a total of 136 people. In September 2001, a Siberia Airlines Tu-154 was blasted from the sky by a surface-to-air missile while flying over the Black Sea, killing all seventy-eight passengers and crew. Blame eventually was assigned to a Ukrainian air defense unit participating in a military exercise — a terrible accident.

The tragic loss of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 is certain to cause international outrage as well as diplomatic problems for Moscow. So far, the Kremlin has shown little desire to come clean about what actually happened, though the aircraft’s black boxes will have much to tell. There is no doubt that U.S. and Allied intelligence possess information that will demonstrate who exactly was behind the shootdown, and perhaps why they did what they did. Here SIGINT will be critical, particularly electronic intelligence (ELINT, meaning intercepts of radar and other emissions like missile launch data) perhaps supplemented by communications intelligence (COMINT, meaning actual voice intercepts), and it is hoped that, as the Reagan administration did in 1983, when it revealed NSA SIGINT to the world at the United Nations, proving Soviet responsibility for the loss of KAL 007, the Obama administration will take this matter seriously and challenge what appears to be a gross act of lawlessness by Moscow-backed criminals.


*The excellent documentary program Mayday has presented episodes based on these cases; while I do not necessarily agree with all their conclusions, the programs are well researched and presented, as well as available on YouTube.


25 comments on “On Shooting Down Civilian Airliners”
  1. xtmar says:

    Not to be overly cynical about it, but what do you put the odds at that Putin still gets delivery of his Mistral amphibious assault ships from France? To me, that seems like the acid test of whether or not the west actually cares about the Ukraine, or if it’s just something that they will pay lip service to. Thus far, the evidence seems to favor the latter.

    1. 20committee says:

      Seems like lip service to me, but this may change, let’s watch the next few days.

      1. Want2no says:

        Can Putin even be pressured at this point?

    2. 4MK says:

      The Mistral deal is off,theirs a deal been done to do with the fines for dealing with irans banking sector,the french will have the fine rubbed in exchange for handing over the two ships to the USA

  2. mindweapon says:

    The Eastern Ukrainians are defending home and hearth; the US criminals attacked Iraq and Afghanistan for no good reason.

    I’m rootin’ for Putin.

    1. the unutterable says:

      you should change your nom de plume.

      you just dont live up to “mindweapon”.

  3. Ihor Molodecky says:

    This indeed was a “genuine disaster” for those on the plane and for their families.
    As far as Russian foreign policy goes, I’d call it more of a setback and embarrassment. The people who actually messed up and shot down the airliner thinking it was a military transport will be quickly and quietly eliminated and the conflict will keep on going.
    It will only be a game changer if , among other things, the Ukraine/Russia border is secured, and the foreign fighters together with all their equipment and command structure are removed back across the border into Russia. Then at least the Ukrainian military will have a reasonable chance of success.
    Right now, for all we know,the black boxes may already be in Moscow. We already know that the plane was shot down…so what more info would the black boxes tell us? Probably that everything was completely normal,.. . followed possibly by a few curses and then lots of silence.
    And so unfortunately may be the extent of the West’s response to this atrocity.
    Hoping that I’m wrong but not holding my breath.

  4. Charly says:

    twill be lip service.. look at the track record of the EU in terms of foreign policy. Americans should not bash Obama. He is quite lonely in this mess. Merkel, Hollande and Cameron are probably going to stay in History as those who did not dare to do anything beyond delivering empty words.
    How can EU be ever credible if it is even not capable to support a country against a foreign aggression, on its own continent.

  5. Mark says:

    Given the fact that Russian nat. gas keeps a lot of Europe warm in the winter, it’s unlikely European governments will do much about this. North Sea gas is past peak and in decline and the illusion that the USA has nat. gas to sell to Europe reflects innumeracy, not physical ability.

    I hope if the Russian backed “rebels” did this atrocity they don’t get an award like the captain of the Vincennes.

  6. Max says:

    Anyone now think Scotland will vote for independence?

    1. 4MK says:

      Thers no chance of Scottish dependence the scots themselves dont want it,Scotland will never be a viable state,its not capable of financing itself and providing security for the massive borders,Nor is Scotland going to get EU or NATO membership,the consensus is that salmon is a delusional alcoholic trying to drag Scotland down a black hole which there is no return,For the sake of the Scottish people we hope the union holds well,and i live 50 miles from the borders and am partly scotish

      1. xtmar says:

        providing security for the massive borders,

        I suspect that Scotland is rather in a position like Canada, which is to say that their immediate neighbors are peaceable and developed enough that thay can just leave most of their border open, or with minimal control. If anything, they can probably free load off of the remainder of the UK, since any easy immigration route to Scotland is via England or its environs, and Scotland currently faces no meaningful military threats. (Unless Cameron decides to re-annex Scotland after granting it independence.)

    1. 20committee says:

      I’ve tweeted repeatedly about this, excellent article.

    2. Mark says:

      You’d have to be a really bad pilot to fly over Kamchatka and think you’re over ocean, even if your autopilot was misprogrammed and the nearby NSA planes chose not to warn you that you were headed into Soviet airspace. Not defending the Soviets, but it’s not believable the KAL 007 overflight was unintentional. This week’s tragedy isn’t similar at all.

      It’s been a long time since I read these, perhaps they still hold up with more recent disclosures.

      KAL 007: The Cover-Up – Why the True Story Has Never Been Told by David Pearson

      Shootdown: Flight 007 and the American Connection by R. W. Johnson

      1. 20committee says:

        There is no serious evidence that KAL007’s flight over Soviet territory was anything but a navigational error.

  7. Gary says:

    Is this a foreign policy disaster for Russia or does it provide Putin a rationale for seizing eastern Ukraine to establish stability — something Kiev is unable to do?

    1. 20committee says:

      Could be both….time will tell!

  8. Nar Sil Zbr says:

    At least this looks accidental. But why did Radoslaw Sikorski and the Polish president ask world leaders not to delve into circumstances of the Polish Presidential plane’s crash at Katyn? Or was it someone else who asked for that lack of interest?

  9. Emilio says:

    Radek Sikorski on twitter regarding MH17:

    “Just like in Smolensk the causes of the crash are clear”

    either he must be having fun with that one (who knew he was this cruel) or that did not come out the way he indended

  10. Jim Belushi says:

    cross Google

    Turowski (deep cover priest sent to spy on JPII (present at the attempted assasination), then and now Polish Foreign Ministry official (former ambassador to Cuba) and also organizer of the Kaczynski visit to Katyn (present at Smolensk airport, then welcomed JKaczynski when he came to see his brothers remains)


    Sikorski – who stayed in Rome for about a year in the 80s where he met Mr. Turowski

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