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.