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.
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.
Ken Allard, a retired Army colonel, is a military analyst and author
on national security issues.