Implications of the JIT’s MH17 report


Last week, the Joint Investigation Team conducting a criminal investigation into the downing of idH17 issued their preliminary findings. Here’s what I think are the main takeaways.

— The findings strongly endorse the work of “open source intelligence” pioneer Eliot Higgins and his group, Bellingcat. In the immediate aftermath of the shoot-down, it was accepted by nearly every pundit and journalist that the missile had been fired accidentally by poorly trained militiamen who had somehow gotten their hands on an SA-11 Buk launcher and had a acquired a target without bothering to first identify it. But by painstaking work and great resourcefulness, the Bellingcat team was able to piece together an extremely convincing timeline, by which the launcher was brought across the border from a specific Russian military unit, was transported under the direction of the GRU (Russian military intelligence), shot down MH17, and was sent back across the border that night. As I’ve written previously, the timeline described by Bellingcat does not fit with the hapless-militiaman scenario very well. As the New York Times reported, “It is unlikely that anyone not connected with the Russian military would have been able to deploy an SA-11 missile launcher from Russia into a neighboring country.”

— While still admiting the possibility that the Buk crew acted on its own, the report shifts the emphasis to the once-unthinkable: that the missile launch was ordered by higher-ups:

…an investigation is conducted into the chain of command. Who gave the order to bring the BUK-TELAR into Ukraine and who gave the order to shoot down flight MH17? Did the crew decide for themselves or did they execute a command from their superiors? This is important when determining the offences committed by the alleged perpetrators.

As the New York Times put it, the JIT has signaled that it intends “to build an open-and-shut case against individual suspects and to diagram the chain of command behind the order to deploy and launch.”

One can just about imagine a wet-behind-the-ears lieutenant, newly trained and sitting nervously in the cab of his Buk TELAR, messing up and accidentally firing a missile at an unidentified target. But it is harder to imagine an experienced senior officer mistakenly giving the order. Indeed, the higher one goes up the chain of command, the less likely that the decision was made without explicit or implicit endorsement by an immediate superior. The implication, then, is that the order to shoot down MH17, if it did come from anywhere, came from the very top.

— One new piece of information that was revealed in last week’s presentation was that on the day before MH17 was shot down, a rebel commander was recorded making an emotional telephone call to a superior in the regular Russian military, complaining that his troops were vulnerable to Ukrainian air attacks—specifically, by Su-25 ground-attack jets—and that they needed Buks to protect them.

This could be interpreted as evidence that the delivery of the Buk that shot down MH17 was initiated by the militia. Alternatively, it could be a coincidence that a militia commander happened to ask for a missile system the Russian military had already decided to deploy. I think the latter is more likely, for the simple reason that the Buk missile system was not the most appropriate weapon for defending against Su-25s or the other low-altitude planes then in service against the separatists.

The Su-25 is more or less the Russian counterpart of the American A-10: it is designed for low-altitude strafing attacks, with a maximum altitude of 23,000 feet. Another plane used by the Ukrainian military at the time was the An-26 transport, with a maximum altitude of 25,000 feet. A potent defence against these planes would be the Pantsir anti-aircraft system, a mobile rocket launcher that also incorporates self-aiming quad machine guns to automatically blast low-flying attackers out of the sky. Compared to the Buk, which can reach targets above 80,000 feet high, the Pantsir can reach no higher than 26,000 feet. But unlike the Buk it can handle jets flying low under the radar, as the Su-25 can do.

It is known that Pantsirs were present and active in eastern Ukraine at the time of the shootdown. On July 14, an An-26 military transport plane was flying at about 20,000 feet when it was shot down. Ukrainian military assumed that it was downed either by a Pantsir or by an air-to-air missile fired from a Russian fighter jet flying on the other side of the Russian-Ukrainian border. On July 16, a Su-25 flying at nearly the same altitude was also shot down, again either by a Pantsir or an air-to-air missile. The blog Putin@War found satellite imagery of Pantsir units near the Ukraine-Russian border in August of 2016.

The limited reach of the Pantsir is one of the reasons that officials believed that airliners would be perfectly safe traveling higher than 32,000 feet, and so kept the airspace open to airline traffic. Buks were not known to be in the theater—and, indeed, up until the day of the shoot-down, it seems that they weren’t.

As a general principle, you do not want to send equipment into a poorly regulated battlespace that is any more powerful than it needs to be. The potential danger is too great. Retired U.S. military intelligence officer Peter Akins told me that, having had experience with many brushfire wars on its perimeter, the Russians know better than to carelessly hand out strategically powerful weapons like the Buk. “My guess is that they’re pretty carefully controlled,” he says. “We ran into real problems in Afghanistan with giving mujahadeen all those Stingers (MANPADS) that they used to take out Russian helicopters. Stingers have a relatively long shelf life. So once the mujahadeen became Taliban, if they could get to the top of a mountain in Afghanistan they could increase the operational envelope of the missile so that they could target US aircraft. So that’s one of the lessons that we learned, which is don’t give out MANPADS. I don’t know where the idea for ‘Let’s give an SA-11 to a separatist movement in the Donetsk National Sovereignty Front’ would have come from. That’s not the actions of a responsible government.”

— The weight of the JIT’s authority has, I think, severely undermined the army of Kremlin trolls who have been promoting a fog of pro-Russian conspiracy theories almost from day one. As Finnish defense writer Robin Häggblom put it, “the amount of evidence found in both open and non-open source has reached such levels that the question of whether a Russian supplied Buk shot down MH17 can now be considered a litmus test for whether you are under the influence of Russian propaganda or not.”

— The slow, grinding, meticulous building of the case against Russia feels unstoppable—and it could lead to a huge and potentially dangerous political crisis. In the wake of the JIT’s presentation, Moscow responded with such fury that the Dutch foreign minister summoned the Russian ambassador. In response, the Russian foreign minister summoned the Dutch ambassador in Moscow. Meanwhile, Australia’s foreign minister said that whoever was responsible for the shoot-down could face an international tribunal like the one who found Libyan agents guilty for the bombing of Pan Am 103 over Lockerbie Scotland. Russia has already used its security council powers to block a UN investigation.

As I’ve been saying for a long time now, if it is determined that the Russian leadership deliberately ordered the shoot-down of MH17, the implications for MH370 are obvious—one of the difficulties in trying to understand MH370 is that, though it was clearly a deliberate act, there was no plausible motive. MH17 provides, if not understanding of what the motive was, clear evidence that a motive existed, in mid-2014, for a great power to take down a Malaysia Airlines 777. If an international Lockerbie-style commission is ultimately set up to assign criminal blame for Ukraine tragedy, then it is not too far out to imagine a similar body being established to do the same for MH370.

UPDATE: The Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab has published a nice overview of the anti-aircraft weapons systems that Russia has deployed in Eastern Ukraine. It seems that the Buk TELAR deployed from July 16 to 18, 2014, was the only one that threatened civil air traffic over the region.

534 thoughts on “Implications of the JIT’s MH17 report”

  1. @DennisW

    As projecting as you often are with your superior ‘whacko’ statements (which you won’t see at all like this off course, in your enlightend view of your own superior capabilities;) you still have a point.

    Those coördinates in the SIO on the SIM have no sence at all if not for some kind of reason.
    There is no sence at all in practising some flight there without fuel and descent that way.
    Of all places this would be no place for a pilot to check out anything at all if it had no specific meaning.

    It could possibly be a rehearsal practise.
    Not at the actual crash location but just random in the SIO there. Not to give way his true destination. Just for practise.

  2. @Ge Rijn

    Yes, I should be more tolerant of people who want to toss the ISAT data and the radar graphics in the toilet. I am also remiss in not finding a way to validate that data. I just “lose it” (my patience) from time to time. The feeling will pass I am sure. However, I do draw a hard line at alien abduction.

    Don’t get carried away with the simulator data points. There are millions of coordinate points all over the WEB in the year or two preceding the disappearance. Why single out deleted points on Shah’s simulator?

  3. @DennisW, Since the BTO and BFO data are out the window:), maybe the Dutch should startlooking in the Northe Sea and work their way outwards? What do you think? The truth is out there!! Wink, Nudge….

  4. @DennisW- RE:

    “Also, as you stated earlier, the simulator was clearly broken and those points in the SIO could have been created at random or by a cleaning lady or a burglar.”

    As it seems his computer was not highly secured, it is possible a remote attack was done to setup the SIO scenario without his knowledge. Then his flight simulator was acting up as a result so he uninstalled the application leaving behind data in the Shadow Copy Set.

  5. @ventus

    No, I did not read that previously. This is the only site I frequent unless someone links something elsewhere.

    If you have a summary of arc crossing locations with speed and track angle assumptions I would be happy to take a look at it.

  6. @DrBobbyUlich

    –“Just to be 100% clear, am I correct in understanding that you think the following will happen at a route discontinuity: (1) the altitude will not change, (2) the speed mode will not change (ECON, Holding, LRC, etc.), and (3) the heading at which the aircraft is currently flying will not change?”

    ALT will not change. Mach will not change. HDG will not change. Whatever that trio was under FMC, the MCP will snap to those values (in either mag or true, depending on what was selected, but it would be highly unusual to be in true anywhere between 70N&70S) and assume command of the AP.

    Speed “mode?” There is no mode any longer. Once you’re in the realm of the MCP, there are no such things as ECON, LRC, climb thrust, etc, which are calculations performed by the FMC. You have only the SPD/Mach knob (which defaults to Mach above FL180 but can be switched between IAS and Mach whenever you want).

    –“…does the MCP update the magnetic declination over time thereafter? If it does, the aircraft track will actually follow a constant magnetic heading.”

    I’m having trouble thinking of it in those terms. It may be because I think you’re conceiving of it backwards. Here’s about the best answer I can give:

    A compass (or, in our case, an ADIRU-derived magnetic reference that is precessionless and built to exactly mimic the performance of a liquid compass) just simply holds mag north while the aircraft rotates around it. It doesn’t care what the variation is. Only a human being who wants to end up at a certain point on a map cares about variation.

    So my answer is, the “compass” of a B777 keeps pointing to mag north and does not “update” anything. Ever.

    By “Updating for variation” I think you’re actually referring to the process through which the nav software would DERIVE true headings or tracks while in the air. It continuously ADDs the local east var and SUBTRACTs the local west var in order to display a TRUE value in the ND when asked to. It obtains that information because the IRU/GPS constantly knows the plane’s position on Earth. But the engine behind those calculations is still a magnetic reference.

    Thus, in order to fly TRUE, you select it in the MCP and trust the avionics to fly you in TRUE, even though it is reverse-figuring TRUE all the while through a combination of MAG & position.

    –“Isn’t it true that airways are great circle segments between fixed waypoints?”

    An airway is the entire constellation of legs and intersections between one navaid and another. Between each point is indeed a great circle route, but because the entire airway system has its origins in the VOR system, all IFR charts show inbound and outbound headings from any VOR in MAG. Ditto every instrument procedure ever charted. Ditto every runway heading.

    –“…both the displayed magnetic bearing and the true bearing will change with time along the great circle legs. In general, neither one would be constant. I don’t think airways are “defined” by magnetic bearings.”

    Of course they change if it’s a great circle route. But you’re wrong about airways. There are many classes of VOR-only aircraft that are still IFR-legal yet can only fly an airway by dialing up inbound and outbound VOR bearings in MAG. They have no “direct to” (which would always be great circle) option and ATC will know this because of their equipment suffix.

  7. Matt Moriarty posted October 14, 2016 at 8:51 PM: “Speed “mode?” There is no mode any longer. Once you’re in the realm of the MCP, there are no such things as ECON, LRC, climb thrust, etc, which are calculations performed by the FMC. You have only the SPD/Mach knob (which defaults to Mach above FL180 but can be switched between IAS and Mach whenever you want). ”

    I generally agree with your posts and am very glad that you joined the discussion and contribute your expertise.

    Are you sure of this part of your post? My understanding is that at a route discontinuity LNAV changes to HDG HOLD. VNAV is not affected and continues to control speed and altitude, unless other pitch and thrust modes are selected on the MCP. VNAV is controlled by the FMC. Am I wrong?

    I agree with the rest of your post.

  8. Dennis,

    Thanks, your instructions did work for me. Even without clearing cache. The paywall does not exist for Google.

    ATSB is obviously in a big mess. The plane has gone, 200M wasted, and there is still no consensus where to search, and no clue what could have really happened. Somehow I even feel sorry for them.

  9. @Matt Moriarty:

    Thanks for your reply. Yes I read the texts from your 777 captain buddy again, but I couldn’t find a good reference for his statements. The book says:

    LNAV maintains current heading when:
    • Passing the last active route waypoint
    • Passing the last waypoint prior to a route discontinuity
    • Passing the last route offset waypoint
    • Activating the inactive route or activating an airway intercept and not within LNAV engagement criteria

    The book then lists the conditions that cause disengagement of LNAV, but not this one. Same for VNAV disengagement conditions.

    So how sure is your 777 captain buddy?

  10. @Oleksandr


    I think the ATSB has been acting in good faith. They will need to do some damage control, but I think they did the right thing by exporting the analytics. They have plausible deniability.

    Fugro reminds me a bit of the well drilling business. When I retired I looked at the economics of a drilling rig. In California well drillers are booked over a year in advance. The numbers show you can easily make $200k a year net of expenses per rig. The beauty is that you are under no obligation to find anything. You just punch a hole in the ground where the customer tells you, and you get paid by the foot. You need to be a good welder and mechanic because stuff breaks frequently. I finally decided the work was too hard for someone who did not need the money. Still it would beat going to college. getting out with $50k of student loan debt, and not being able to find a job.

  11. @Matt m. You enquired about a fuller description of my scenario. You’ll find it here inclusive of rationale, assumptions and technical appendices. Subsequent to this paper I was able to modify Barry Martin’s remarkable path modelling tool at to be able to handle fixed M magnetic track hold paths.

  12. @Matt M. A final nicety, if you are going back for further clarification.

    In event of route discontinuity, is it the track or heading (at time of passing last waypoint) that is perpetuated?

    Thanks in advance…

  13. @ventus45
    Interesting material in the link, thank you. Reminded me though about S25’s recently shared paths, which I tend to favor right now. S25 apparently found a more “straight” path to Broken Ridge S32 around 97E.

  14. @JeffW, The “copy and paste” journalism on Negroni’s book is unbelievable. I would have thought a devastating arrticle would appear somewhere on how her theory does not fit any of the facts and that the book belongs in the rubbish bin :).

  15. @DennisW, Regarding Fugro. When SA295 crashed in 1987! in the SIO near Mauritius due to an on board fire, the investigators didn’t have much to go on either as there was little debris as well. It is interesting how there was a lot of ATC communication amidst a rampant fire and cabin/cockpit filling with smoke and PAX/crew dying of monoxide poisoning. This is what one would call a real emergency. And all this with 1987 vintage oxygen masks, and vintage radio equipment – communication was still possible. Anyhow, the fuselage was eventually found and spread over 5 square miles at -5000m. Fugro is not experienced in these kind of searches, but as you say get paid to try and find. They are in no obligation TO find for the USD20Mil they are being paid. Given that SA295 fuselage was spread over 5miles when it crashed from a very low altitude, one would think M9-MRO would have been found if its in the current search area. (which still needs to be completed). Do you believe FUGRO is up to the job? Could they have missed it entirely if the fuselage is spread over many miles? Alternatively, they have been looking in the wrong place as many have been saying.

  16. @Keffertje- I would suspect some detection especially the debris would likely spread out over a fair distance which make detection more likely.

  17. @Matt Moriarty,

    You said:”A compass (or, in our case, an ADIRU-derived magnetic reference that is precessionless and built to exactly mimic the performance of a liquid compass) just simply holds mag north while the aircraft rotates around it. It doesn’t care what the variation is. Only a human being who wants to end up at a certain point on a map cares about variation.”

    The heart of the ADIRU in a B777 is a ring laser gyroscope that know nothing of magnetic fields. Conversion of a true bearing or heading to a magnetic reference is done by calculation using the aircraft location and the 2005 magnetic variation tables.

    At this point there are two fundamental questions regarding heading control: (1) Does the FMC actually hand over the heading control to the MCP upon passing the last waypoint prior to a route discontinuity? (2) If the heading control is done by the MCP, is the magnetic variation continually updated thereafter?

    Following Gysbreght’s inquiry, with respect to speed, does the FMC continue to control speed using the same method, or does the MCP begin to maintain the last Mach number?

  18. @Gysbreght,

    You said: ”
    I would like to add: How do you explain that the average groundspeed from primary radar between the turnback and the last return at 18:22 was consistently some 25 kts higher than would correspond to the speed commanded prior to IGARI: M.82, FL350, ISA+10.5 = 484 kt TAS ?”

    Based on the radar track and the wind data, the true air speed from ~17:22 to 18:22 is consistent with LRC at FL360. The ground speed is higher than the air speed because of the generally easterly winds at that time. There is nothing inconsistent unless you think that Increasing the speed from ECON 52 to ECON 180 (LRC) and going to the next higher even flight level are impossible or unthinkable. Both seem quite reasonable to me.

  19. Bobby,

    I think you confuse MCP with AFDC…

    It does not look like AFDCs have their own magnetic tables, but I think it does not matter as long as ADIRU output includes both magnetic and true heading.

  20. @Oleksandr,

    I believe the AFDS comprises the MCP and three AFDC’s (plus the BCA). Perhaps I should say the AFDS controls the heading using the AFDC’s. The magvar tables I was discussing are in the ADIRU.

  21. @DrBobbyUlich: The wind component is taken into account, the airplane maintained M.82 (not ECON 52) prior to IGARI, and according to the radar data the FL’s after IGARI were below FL350 not higher. The whole point of the question is that the turnback was not simply a course reversal while the airplane remained in autopilot control.

  22. @DrBobbyUlich @Matt Moriarty

    While ring-laser-gyros are only messuring Earth-rotation comparing to the position of the plane and no ‘magnetic-north’ or ‘fields’ doesn’t this mean that ‘true-north’ cq. ‘true headings’ are primary when those magnetic variation tables are not available or used?

    Won’t this mean that after route-discontinuity the plane can only use ‘true headings’ based on this primary system of ring-laser-gyros?

  23. When Jeff Wise posted October 11, 2016 at 10:10 AM: “@Keffertje, No, “manual flying” means controlling the plane with your hands on the yoke, which would pretty much never happen at altitude.” he expressed a misconception about manual flying that is fairly common among the armchair experts on this forum. It may be enlightening to read what Continental Airlines writes about it in their B777 Flight Manual:


    Autopilot Flight Director System (AFDS) and Flight Management Computer
    (FMC) systems are designed to increase flight precision and reduce crew
    workload. Pilots must be well versed in flying the B777 using all levels of
    automation – from raw data hand flying through auto flight guidance using the
    full LNAV and VNAV capabilities of the FMC. When an automated function
    improves precision or reduces workload, its use may be desirable. However, if
    an automated function does not complement a given situation, good judgment
    supports use of a more basic mode.

    Continental’s goal for automation is to increase safety, efficiency, and improve
    situational awareness, while reducing pilot workload. Pilots must be proficient
    in all capabilities of their aircraft, including the automated systems, and must
    use their judgment as to how and when those systems are employed.

    I Hand Flown Raw Data
    II Hand Flown Flight Guidance
    III Autopilot / Autothrottle Flight Guidance
    IV LNAV / VNAV Flight Guidance

    Use automation at the level that it best improves situational awareness, reduces
    workload, and provides for most efficient flight performance. The level of
    automation used is dynamic – change the level (up or down) if the current level
    employed is detracting from the situation (i.e., increasing workload).
    Pilots must be aware that consistent use and reliance on automation levels III
    and IV throughout the flight regime will degrade basic flying skills. Therefore,
    pilots must continue to maintain proficiency by using all levels of automation on
    a regular basis.

    High Altitude / High Speed Flight Characteristics
    The aircraft exhibits excellent stability throughout the high altitude/Mach range.
    Mach buffet is not normally encountered at high Mach cruise, even at MMO.
    The aircraft does not have a Mach tuck tendency.
    As speed nears MMO, drag increases rapidly. Consequently at high weights,
    sufficient thrust is not available to accelerate to MMO in level flight at high
    cruising altitudes.
    During turbulent flight conditions, it is possible to experience high altitude g
    buffet at speeds less than MMO. The controls are fully effective at all times.


    The program consists of the following eight events, scheduled for maximum
    effectiveness and continuity:
    My comment: the description of each event ends with a sentence similar to:
    Inability to successfully accomplish all maneuvers during the CQST
    period will require additional training prior to line flying.

    Crewmembers are expected to use good judgment in the selection of
    configurations and speeds, and in the execution of procedures. This includes the
    use of other crewmembers to perform functions that would divert attention from
    maintaining proper aircraft control.
    The aircraft should be flown with precision at all times. The following criteria
    are considered acceptable:
    • Altitude – ± 100’
    • Airspeed – ± 5 knots
    • Heading – ± 5°

    Satisfactory performance is required on each procedure and maneuver.

  24. Ge Rijn,

    “While ring-laser-gyros are only messuring…”

    B777’s ADIRU is comprised of a number of gyros, accelerometers and 4 processors. So when you are talking about computational error resulting in the impossibility to properly convert true heading into magnetic heading, you need to keep quadruple redundancy in mind. And if all the four processors fail, then the whole ADIRU fails. In this case all user systems use data from SAARU and GPS, while most of the AP functions become unavailable.

  25. @Dennisw

    ”Don’t get carried away with the simulator data points. There are millions of coordinate points all over the WEB in the year or two preceding the disappearance. Why single out deleted points on Shah’s simulator?”

    You are one of the very few capable of discerning the truth. I respect you for that.

    But to ignore the sim data is a huge mistake imo.

    Finding SIO data points on the hard drive of Zaharie shah is extremely suspicious.

  26. @DennisW. Dr Gordon reckoned on the probability of finding the wreckage, if in the search area, in the low to mid seventies %.

    It may be his assessment did not include sonar efficacy. Aside from wreckage density and dispersal there is the bottom type. Rocks of course create echoes and sediment can attenuate echoes from hard wreckage. Remember (below) the towfish depressor weight, still attached to the towfish, depicted as two thirds or more buried. I remember the Fugro project man was reported as coming up with a 95% prospect. That might have been what he expected of the sonar in the sediment rocks, peaks and gorges.

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