More details slowly become available. From WaPo today, the President confirmed preliminary US conclusions the missile was fired from a rebel-held part of Ukraine, albeit he did not directly blame the separatists for firing it. In a different venue, US Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power said, given the highly technical nature of the type of weapons system used in the shoot-down, it is not possible to rule out Russian technical assistance for the firing. Ambassador Power further reiterated the separatists “boasted on social media” about shooting down an aircraft before deleting those messages. Pentagon Press Secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby was quoted as saying “whether it was a Russian military unit that did it, or a separatist unit… we don’t know.” He added Russia has 12,000 troops deployed in the border area.
As I blogged yesterday, the SA-11 system is a technically sophisticated medium range, high altitude radar guided missile system. It is not man-portable. Normally the system is deployed in battalions of 15-25 vehicles; consisting of a headquarters, area-surveillance and tracking radars, plus three firing batteries of three vehicles, each with 4 missiles, two with missile guidance radar on-board (different from the surveillance and tracking radars, these are to guide the missiles) and one without as a launch platform only, plus ancillary attachments like reload vehicles or those related to the manning force such as cooks and supply trucks and so forth. This was not, repeat not, done by a lone trigger-happy gunman with a SAM over his shoulder; no missile system capable of being carried around by a human has the range or altitude to have hit the MH17 flight. The system can operate as a stand alone system, as air defense for a brigade-sized unit, or two or three battalions might guard a division. It is also capable of operating as an integrated part of a theater air defense system. More than a small amount of technical training is required to operate such a thing, raising the question of where the operators, whoever they may be, got such training.
Topically, then, WaPo is also out today with a story describing how the separatists have been given such training in western Russia.
Air Force Gen. Philip M. Breedlove, the U.S. commander of NATO forces in Europe, said late last month that there was clear evidence that Ukrainian rebels were being trained on Russian territory on how to operate “vehicle-borne” antiaircraft-aircraft batteries.
“We have not seen any of the air-defense vehicles across the border yet, but we’ve seen them training in the western part of Russia,” he said at a Pentagon news conference.
The Ukrainian Interior ministry released a video allegedly showing a SA-11 system being moved from rebel-held Ukraine back into Russia. In the video one of the launcher vehicles appears to be missing one of its missiles. The authenticity of this video has not been confirmed.
WaPo further cites a technical expert to confirm the technical sophistication of the equipment:
James O. Poss, a retired Air Force major general, said the SA-11 was a sophisticated antiaircraft system that relies on advanced data links to coordinate its radar and missile launcher. “It would require training and fairly skilled operators to use,” he said.
Poss said the antiaircraft battery would require regular maintenance and a steady supply of replacement parts, a level of servicing that the rebels would be unlikely to provide on their own. “You’re not going to drive that kind of thing around the roads of eastern Ukraine for months without needing spare parts from Russia,” he said.
So, we’re a little farther along in our understanding today. Nobody is as yet baldly accusing the separatists of doing it, but it’s looking more likely all the time. This coincides with my belief. Neither Russia nor Ukraine would have had anything to gain by shooting down an airliner, and both would have had a great deal to lose. Ukraine would have lost credibility with the West, whom they desperately need, and might have shut off the flow of such aid as they are getting. Russia needs quiet and inattention from the rest of the world if they hope to reestablish their former empire. They lack the strength to do so boldly, they can only sneak it by a small piece at a time. (Stratfor has an excellent piece out yesterday, involving both the shoot-down and the Gaza invasion, in which this theme is more fully developed. It’s outside the paywall, do yourself a favor…) It would not have been in Russia’s interests either. That doesn’t leave a lot of options, of course, except the separatists. It’s not exactly in their interests, but they’re desperate, and pretty crazy, and they are the most likely to have such a system manned by partly-trained operators. Operators like that might have shot the thing down without understanding what they were shooting at. Already the separatists have claimed a large Ukrainian Antonov cargo plane. They could have easily thought it was another.
One of the key points here is the technical sophistication of the system is such it’s not easy seeing the separatists managing it without a large helping of Russian support, both in technical talent as well as physical support like spares and calibration tools and the like. If this is true, there might well have been Russian “observers” on site at the time the missile was fired. Even if this is not so, it’s hard to see Russia escaping blame entirely. The separatists could not have managed it without their aid. Russian Ambassador to the UN, Vitaly Churkin, had harsh words for people who were trying to “prejudge” the outcome of the investigation, and openly accused the Ukrainian government of failing to warn civilian air to avoid the conflict area. That’s probably a good indication of what Russia’s worried about.