The Wake Up Call Of The Malaysian Air Shootdown

Posted on Sun 07/20/2014 by


20071213_Allard_4_articlesBy Colonel Kenneth Allard (U.S. Army, Ret) ~

For the second time in three months, a Malaysian 777 aircraft, carrying 295 passengers and crew, is at the center of an international tragedy. Unlike the previous catastrophe, we know exactly where this one crashed and why: Shot from the sky over eastern Ukraine as it cruised smoothly at an altitude of 33,000 feet. We know that because, at this writing, un-named US intelligence officials are confirming that the aircraft was shot down by a surface-to-air missile, a weapon system that has been the pride and joy of Russian defenses ever since the Cold War.


A piece of a plane with the sign “Malaysia Airlines” lies in the grass as a group of Ukrainian coal miners search the site of a crashed Malaysian passenger plane near the village of Rozsypne, Ukraine, eastern Ukraine Friday, July 18, 2014. Rescue workers, policemen and even off-duty coal miners were combing a sprawling area in eastern Ukraine near the Russian border where the Malaysian plane ended up in burning pieces Thursday, killing all 298 aboard. (AP Photo/Dmitry Lovetsky)

The first time most Americans heard about Russian air defense was in 1960, when the U-2 flown by Francis Gary Powers was shot down by an SA-2 missile high above Soviet Union. All during the Vietnam War, American air forces flew against a running gauntlet of SA-2 missiles as well as other family members designed to be deadly at lower altitudes. The Russian military, a classic well-armored ground force, had profound respect for the killing power of American air power; so wherever the Soviet army or its client-states went, Soviet air defenses were always close at hand.

When Russian president Vladimir Putin‘s covert campaign against the Ukraine moved from simple intimidation to “active measures,” it was natural that air defense weapons like the SA-20 and SA-11 would be part of the Russian package. This latest generation of air defense was developed by Russian designers to counter the deadly western advantages of attack helicopters and cruise missiles. Systems like the SA-11 can track high-flying objects more than 85 km away, attacking them from 28 km at Mach-3. A 777 airliner in stable flight at 33,000 feet? No problem.

All the likely suspects – the Ukrainians, the Russians and the so-called Donetsk Republic separatists – already have such weapons in their inventories. Unsurprisingly, all either claimed innocence or blamed each other: Except for Igor Strelkov, the consummately foolhardy separatist commander who apparently didn’t get the word. Until his tweet was swiftly hushed up, he claimed to have shot down a Ukrainian AN-26 cargo aircraft around the same time as the Malaysian airliner went missing. So who’s lying and who’s trying to convince the civilized world that black is just a delicate shade of gray?

This is where the National Security Agency, when not otherwise occupied monitoring our cell-phones or reading our emails, actually comes in handy. Three of its signature disciplines are signals intelligence (SIGINT), electronic intelligence (ELINT) and measurement and signature intelligence (MASINT). Comparing the raw data collected through each of these disciplines and drawing upon its extensive databases, the NSA can use all-source analysis to determine answers to the following critical questions:

What missile was used, from what range and from which location was it launched?
What kind of navigation systems guided the missile to its target?
If radar was the primary guidance system, which ground control
stations shared that data?
Who reported to whom, who gave the order to fire and who approved that decision?
Was the decision to fire deliberate or accidental?

Intelligence is most valuable when it uses analytical science to derive hard answers to what are often matters of opinion or thinly disguised conjecture. That is an especially valuable contribution when investigating air crashes, where human error on the ground or in the air appears with depressing regularity. In July 1988, the USS
Vincennes mistakenly shot down an Iranian airliner and killed 290 civilian passengers. Part of the problem was that a nervous sailor confused the airliner’s range and altitude, erroneously reporting that the Iranian plane was attacking the ship. In 1994, two US Blackhawk helicopters on a mercy mission over northern Iraq were mistakenly shot
down by two US F-15 fighter aircraft. The root cause: misidentification by both fighter pilots and US air controllers.

Pinpointing responsibility for yesterday’s downing of the Malaysian airliner will require a similarly painstaking approach to the basics:

Who did what, with which, to whom and when? Armed with that information, Western decision-makers can best determine the degree of Russian responsibility. If they provided weapons like the SA-11 to the Donetsk Republic separatists, did the Russian military retain the final say-so over the use of those deadly weapons? Or was Mr. Putin putting a loaded weapon into the hands of potential war criminals incapable of applying civilized restraints to an increasingly nasty conflict? Those answers will in turn go far in deciding the Western response to Russian expansionism. If Mr. Putin will go this far, what else might he do and how do we deter him?

Funny thing: Even when America tries to retreat, those wake-up calls just keep coming.

A version of this piece previously appeared on Washington Times. Contributing Editor Colonel Ken Allard is a widely known commentator on foreign policy and security issues. For more than a decade, he was a featured military analyst on NBC News, MSNBC and CNBC. That experience provided the backdrop for his most recent book, Warheads: Cable News and the Fog of War.

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