Independent analysis has found no evidence that Ukrainian authorities were aware of the threat to high-altitude traffic, and specifically civil aviation, before a Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777-200ER was shot down by a surface-to-air missile.
This is despite Ukrainian national security officials’ openly floating the possibility that high-powered weapons might have entered into the conflict in the east of the country before the 777 was attacked.
The US-based Flight Safety Foundation has examined the case of flight MH17, which had been crossing the conflict zone of eastern Ukraine on 17 July 2014, just above a 32,000ft boundary of restricted airspace.
While the adequacy of this upper boundary was questioned during a Dutch Safety Board investigation – given that MH17 was brought down by a powerful Buk anti-aircraft missile – the Flight Safety Foundation “did not find sufficient facts” that the Ukrainian authorities could have had proper awareness of a high-altitude threat or a threat against civil aircraft.
“There were numerous reports about the presence of heavy weapons in the region, such as tanks, MANPADS, artillery and large calibre machine guns,” says the Foundation, in a newly-published factual inquiry into the airspace closure.
“However, there were few reports in the public space about armed non-state forces possessing weapons with a capability to attack above [32,000ft].”
Ukraine’s ministry of defence believed military aircraft were vulnerable to MANPADS attack and, on 6 June 2014, imposed restricted airspace up to 26,000ft to allow military aircraft to operate out of MANPADS range – flying at altitudes of 22,000-24,000ft – with an extra buffer above them.
But uncertainty surrounds the reasons by this restricted airspace ceiling was increased to 32,000ft, at the request of the civil air navigation service UkSATSE, on 14 July 2014 – the same day a Ukrainian air force Antonov An-26 was shot down, and three days before the attack on the 777.
Ukrainian aviation authorities insisted to the Dutch Safety Board that the decision to raise the ceiling arose from the need to put an additional buffer between military and civil aircraft operations, and not from an indication of risk to civil traffic above 26,000ft.
The inquiry was also told that the ceiling increase was initiated before the An-26 incident, and was “not connected in any way”. Dutch investigators could not establish a direct link and concluded the underlying reason remained “unclear”.
But Ukraine’s national security and defence council had openly stated on 14 July, the day the An-26 was shot down, that it believed the aircraft was hit by a “more powerful weapon” than a MANPADS and suggested the possibility that a Russian-built Pantsir surface-to-air missile and artillery system, or an air-to-air missile, might have been involved.
Dutch military intelligence service MIVD, however, shared on 17 July the results of its own investigation into the An-26 loss which found that the aircraft had suffered damage to its right engine inconsistent with the use of a powerful air defence system, and that the use of such a weapon was unlikely.
Further uncertainty had emerged on 16 July when a Ukrainian Sukhoi Su-25 was shot down, with the Ukrainian ministry of defence initially blaming an air-to-air missile, without ruling out a surface-to-air weapon.
While the Ukrainian authorities, in both the An-26 and Su-25 cases, had raised the possibility of weapons being used that were capable of reaching cruise altitudes, neither incident led to the closure of airspace above 32,000ft.
Crucially, the Dutch inquiry concluded that the Ukrainian authorities’ suspicion alone – given their mention of weapons capable of reaching cruise altitude – provided “sufficient reason” for closing the airspace over the east of the country.
It also highlighted that the authorities believed weapons would be used exclusively against military targets and that there was no threat to civil aviation, especially after a tactical suspension of military flights on 16 July, without taking into account the possibility of “error or slips”.
The Flight Safety Foundation analysis centres on its integrated standard for assessing airspace security risks, and it studied a range of information including authorities’ statements in public and responses to questionnaires.
“[Our] research did not find any instances before the downing of flight MH17 in which Ukrainian authorities publicly acknowledged the presence in eastern Ukraine of air defence systems capable of reaching an altitude greater than [32,000ft],” it says.
Counterintelligence services’ suspicions of the presence of high-powered air defence equipment could not be verified.
“No facts were found by the Foundation to indicate that the information was disseminated throughout the statewide process to reach the authorities responsible for risk assessment and decision-making regarding airspace closure,” the Foundation adds.
The analysis acknowledges the “conflicting accounts” over the An-26 shootdown on 14 July, “thought by some” to have been brought down by a surface-to-air missile.
But it says the “most notable” publicly-available information on the capability to attack at high altitudes, prior to the loss of MH17, came from social media posts on movements of Buk missile system batteries and observation of Buk vehicles being observed in east Ukraine.
“The Foundation acknowledges that these were just a few instances of published social media posts out of probably millions of posts made in the region at that time,” it says. “It should also be stressed that the veracity of published social media accounts is difficult to establish.”
It says the identified examples of available information indicating the potential ability to carry out an attack above 32,000ft were “few”, relative to the total volume of information about the conflict zone at the time.
The Foundation says – “with hindsight” – that counterintelligence field information and intercepted telephone conversations might have indicated a threat to civil aviation.
Without knowing the technological capabilities to process intercepted conversations and social media posts, says the Foundation, the analysis cannot conclude that Ukrainian authorities had the means to verify intelligence and co-ordinate dissemination of the information, assess the threat to civil aviation, and close the airspace before the attack on MH17.
The Foundation points out that its analysis is bounded by “a number of limitations”, including the fact that its findings about the airspace closure decisions are based on two specific sources: public source information available during 2020, and information obtained from Ukraine and Russia through questionnaires.
Among its other findings are that surface-to-air weapons should be a “key indicator” in any airspace risk assessment, given their higher destructive power compared with MANPADS, and that examination of conflict zones over 1990-2014 did not identify a “uniform practice” of countries’ closing their own airspace during armed conflict when there were signs of a possible attack against civil aircraft.