Flawed Dutch MH17 Report Proves Nothing
by Kennedy Applebaum
October 16, 2015
Updated October 20, 2015 [See end of post.]
On the numerous flaws in the Dutch Investigation
The official 279-page Dutch Investigation Report (DIR) on the crash of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 (click here) is flawed in a number of aspects. The report is surprisingly nontechnical, as compared, for example, with the detailed September 2014 study conducted by Russian engineers entitled Analysis of the causes of the crash of Flight MH17- Malaysian Boeing 777 (click here). Discussion of the most critical evidence is completely omitted from the DIR document. What evidence there is appears to have been carefully selected, and even that is weak and inconclusive.
The Dutch report contends that the Malaysian Boeing 777 was destroyed in flight by a BUK missile explosion occurring slightly left of and above the cockpit. I will call this the “BUK scenario”. The Dutch investigation falls far short of actually proving this scenario.
In our estimation, the most likely event was that the MH17 was shot down by machine gun, cannon and/or missile fire from a Ukrainian military jet, possibly an SU-25. I will call this the “SU-25 scenario”. This scenario is convincingly argued in the Russian study mentioned above.
We were surprised the Dutch dismissed this scenario by claiming there were no fighter aircraft within 30 km of the Boeing. We thought the presence of military aircraft had been established beyond a doubt. The alleged absence of military aircraft was based on radar data given to the Dutch team by “Air Navigation Service Providers”. Was the source reliable? Since the radar data contradicts the reports of many eye-witnesses, as well as Russian air traffic control data, it should automatically be considered suspect.
The radar data is also incomplete. As the DIR states in Section 18.104.22.168: “The radar data for flight MH17 received from both Air Navigation Service Providers, UkSATSE and GKOVD, is described in this paragraph. The Ukrainian civil primary radar stations in the area were not functioning at the time of the crash due to scheduled maintenance. The military primary radar stations were also not operational. The Ukrainian Ministry of Defence stated that this system was not operational, because there were no Ukrainian military aircraft in the sector through which flight MH17 flew.” The DIR says nothing more on the issue. Yet, the fact that both Ukrainian radar systems happened to be down is a coincidence that should raise questions.
The Dutch investigators only briefly considered the SU-25 scenario. The most critical evidence was ignored, namely, the testimonies of local eye-witnesses. A number of residents say they saw at least one military aircraft near the Boeing at the time of the shootdown. This should have been a primary line of investigation, Yet, while the Dutch team did speak with local residents in August 2015, the people later reported that the Dutch were not interested in what they had to say. That in itself seems suspect.
The Dutch report also ignores the Russian air traffic control data mentioned in the Russian study cited above. According to Section 4.1 of that study, “Russian air traffic control recorded the ascent of a Ukrainian Air Force aircraft, presumably an Su-25, in the direction of the Malaysian Boeing 777. The distance between the SU-25 aircraft from the Boeing 777 was between 3 and 5 km.”
The DIR also fails to mention the nearly perfect 30 mm round holes in the cockpit wall segments, as described by observers such as Michael Bociurkiw, the OSCE monitor who happened to be first at the crash site (MH17: Dutch Safety Board Investigation Raises Questions, click here). It is unlikely holes of this type could be made by the high-energy “bow-tie” and diamond shaped fragments a BUK missile explosion would release.
There is further counterevidence against the BUK missile scenario. A conspicuous absence of soot deposits was notable on the outer cockpit surface in all the photographs we’ve seen. In fact, even the Dutch photographs show no discernible soot deposits, although the DIR claims there were some. The cockpit should have been blackened over a fairly large area, as confirmed by the Russian video of an actual ground experiment in which a BUK missile was detonated next to a decommissioned passenger plane (click here).
The two main flaws of the Dutch report are 1) the omission of critical data, and 2) the weakness of the evidence that is actually used. These are discussed in the two sections below.
Omission of Critical Evidence on the Cause of the Crash
Certain items of evidence that were pertinent to the cause of the crash did not appear at all in the report. Among these were the following:
- Testimonies of local residents and eye-witnesses were not included or even mentioned in the DIR. No reason for excluding them was given. Many eye witnesses reported seeing one or more fighter jets in the vicinity of the Boeing. This is the most critical evidence of all. Why the Dutch chose to ignore this testimony was never explained.
- The testimony of Michael Bociurkiw, the OSCE observer who arrived at the scene immediately after the crash, was not mentioned. His testimony would have supported the SU-25 scenario. That this was omitted points to deliberate data selection on the part of the Dutch.
- Testimonies of air traffic controllers were not considered. No reason was given for the omission.
- In the course of the past year and three months, no witnesses have appeared who claim to have heard the loud blast that would accompany the launch of a BUK missile. Nor does anyone claim to have seen what would be a conspicuous vapor trail in the afternoon daylight. This curious fact was not mentioned in the DIR. If a BUK missile was launched, why were there no witnesses? The DIR does not even bring up the topic.
- The question of why so few BUK missile-type “bow-tie” shrapnel fragments were found in the wreckage was never addressed. A BUK missile would be expected to emit hundreds of high-energy bow-tie-shaped metallic fragments. Yet only four were found. These may have another origin. Why have the Dutch team ignored this discrepancy?
- The question of whether the BUK missile parts the Dutch team found at the crash site predated the crash was never asked or answered. The crash occurred only a few kilometers from the Debaltsevo area in a region of intense fighting. The Ukrainians used BUK missiles in combat. Missile parts may have fallen previously in the vicinity. Yet no attempt was made to date the missile parts lying on the ground, and the issue of whether they fell before or at the time of the crash was not addressed. The finding of BUK missile fragments in a war zone as large as the crash site could well have another explanation. The precise DIR statement from Section 22.214.171.124 reads, “Other relevant objects … were found in the wreckage area. The parts found appeared to be connected with a surface-to-air missile. [These] parts were transported to the Gilze-Rijen Air Force Base in the same way as the aeroplane wreckage was. On arrival the parts underwent the same examination as the pieces of aeroplane wreckage. Subsequently the parts that were suspected to be related to a surface-to-air missile were subjected to forensic examination, as part of the criminal investigation (see Section 2.16). In order to not risk impeding the criminal investigation, the Dutch Safety Board has decided not to publish images of all of the recovered fragments.” This vague argument is far from proof of any connection between the BUK missile fragments, if that’s what they were, and the downing of Flight MH17.
- The curious coincidence that both Ukrainian radar systems were inoperative at the time of the crash was never investigated nor even questioned. The Ukrainian primary civil radar was allegedly down for “maintenanance”, while the Ukrainian military radar was down because it was supposedly not needed, since according to the Ukrainians, they had no military aircraft flying at the time. Is it standard to shut down military radar under these conditions, especially during a war? The DIR does not bring up the question. Note that in the SU-25 scenario, the Ukrainians would have had reason to disable their two radar systems in order to prevent the accumulation of incriminating data. The DIR makes no mention of the possibility. The Dutch took the word of the Ukrainians at face value, even though the Ukrainians are suspects in the case. The Ukrainian radar shutdown, together with the failure of the Dutch to question it, makes the SU-25 scenario look all the more probable, and points to suppression of evidence.
- The time-stamped Twitter reports of air traffic controller Carlos (@Spainbuca) was of course not mentioned. For a translated transcript of Carlos’s tweets, click here. This may seem trivial, but it isn’t. If it can be shown that the Twitter time-stamps were simultaneous with the Boeing crash, which should not be difficult, this constitutes proof his tweets were not a hoax, as Carlos could not have known the shootdown was happening unless he was present in the control tower and hearing what the Ukrainians were saying. Had he not heard them talking, all he would have known was that Flight MH17 disappeared from radar. Instead, he knew the plane was shot down. Carlos’s Twitter feed should have been one of the first lines of investigation, along with the testimony of other air traffic controllers. This, however, would have pointed to Ukrainian guilt. The omission of these lines of investigation suggests suppression of evidence.
This is a prominent pattern throughout the Dutch investigation report. All lines of inquiry that might have incriminated the Ukrainian government were either omitted, or dismissed based on superficial arguments.
The Evidence Used was Weak and Inconclusive
- The alleged soot deposits the Dutch team detected on the external cockpit wall, which would be expected from a BUK missile explosion, were not quantified. No evidence was given that the small amount of soot they found would equal the amount created by a BUK missile. “Soot” was mentioned only briefly, with no specific details. Soot was not visible on any of the photographs shown in the DIR document. However, in the physical experiment performed by the Russians, soot from the explosion blackened a large area of the cockpit, as is visible in the video cited above. Scientific questions should have been asked, such as how much soot would a BUK missile deposit? Ten, a thousand, or a million times as much as that found on the Boeing? The Dutch report ignored such questions.
- Only four bow-tie-shaped fragments were found in the wreckage. A BUK missile is constructed with an outer layer comprising hundreds of such bow-tie-shaped fragments. Why did the Dutch team find only four? Had they found, say, fifty, it would seem reasonable proof of BUK missile involvement. Four fragments, on the other hand, could have been created as a by-product of an air-to-air missile. This issue was never pursued. Note that the R-33, R-37 and R-40 air-to-air missiles, which are commonly used in the region, all have fragmentation warheads. The Dutch report concludes, however, that none of these have bow-tie shaped fragmentation. This, they claim, rules out the SU-25 scenario.
- Physical evidence of a BUK missile launch is weak. The main argument for this assertion is that the BUK parts the Dutch team found at the site belonged to a BUK that allegedly hit the Boeing. The main evidence is the fact that paint samples from the BUK fragments were “indistinguishable” from those of certain metallic objects that had penetrated the plane. That paint samples were “indistinguishable” should mean nothing in a court of law. How hard did they try to distinguish them? A detailed technical analysis of the paint samples was not presented in the report. How common such paint is was also not considered. Yet this is the main argument for linking the BUK parts found at the site with the metallic fragments lodged in the body of the plane. Specifically, the DIR report says in Section 2.16.3: “126 swab samples were taken on various locations of the wreckage of the aeroplane and one of the missile parts…. Approximately 30 of the 126 swab samples showed traces of mainly two different explosives; the nitroamine RDX and trinitrotoluene (TNT). A few of the 30 samples showed traces of PETN. On the tested missile part traces of RDX was found. On the missile part TNT or PETN could not be identified. The investigation into the origin of the explosive residues was made more complicated as the objects from which the swab samples were taken had been exposed to the elements for a long period of time. The possibility of contamination during transport and by the fact that the wreckage lay in an area of armed conflict is a concern for the explosive residue analysis. One of the fragments that was recovered from the wreckage of the aeroplane, was found in the left wing tip and a second one was found lodged in the left cockpit window frame…. The missile parts found at the wreckage area and the fragments recovered from the wreckage were painted with the same number of paint layers and had the same colour. Furthermore, the chemical composition (as analysed using Fourier-transform infrared spectroscopy) of each paint layer was identical for the samples analysed. It was concluded that the paint samples taken from missile parts could not be distinguished from those found on foreign objects extracted from the aeroplane.” This description does not offer enough detail to evaluate the validity of the results. What looks identical to one researcher can look very different to another, depending on what they want to see. At the very least, the analysis needs to be duplicated by Russian or other foreign laboratories. The paint analysis is the most powerful evidence the Dutch have for BUK missile involvement. Yet this evidence is far from sufficient.
- The Dutch claim that the large number of perforations in the cockpit exterior rules out the SU-25 scenario. The DIR alleges that the hundreds of perforations in the walls of the Boeing could not have been caused by a military aircraft at the flight speed of the passenger plane. This result was based on an undisclosed mysterious “calculation” that purportedly shows a military aircraft would be capable of causing no more than a few dozen perforations. This number seems absurdly low, yet the results were not checked against historic cases of actual known fighter aircraft damage. In fact, the “calculation” was not questioned at all, and the source of the calculation was not given. The exact DIR statement from Section 3.6.1 reads: “The number of bullets (typically either armour-piercing or high-explosive) that would have impacted the aeroplane in the case of air-to-air gunfire under the prevailing conditions (i.e. a left frontal hemisphere attack at about 30,000 feet and at the cruise speed of flight MH17) is expected not to exceed several dozen at best. This is a much lower number than the 350 high-energy object hits that were found on the wreckage of the cockpit.” Expected? By whom and on what basis? An SU-25 would seem easily capable of producing several hundred perforations. In any event, nothing other than the above quoted statement was mentioned on this pivotal topic.
- No physical experiments with a BUK missile were performed. The study relied entirely on software simulations performed by Dutch analysts and the Ukraine Defense Ministry. Software simulations, especially those based on proprietary “in-house” code as these were, are notoriously unreliable. Anyone who has developed or used such simulations knows it is possible to create any desired result. There are generally a large number of parameters that can be set at the discretion of the user, not to mention changes to the code that can be made by in-house software developers. Results can be easily manipulated for political ends and often are, even at US research institutions. That the simulation software is “proprietary” and can’t be released makes it impossible to verify algorithms or detect coding errors. The results of the simulations should not be considered as evidence.
- The simulations were performed by Dutch and Ukrainian research companies. Both would have political motives. No attempt was made to duplicate these simulations by objective foreign institutions.
The data and methods used by the Dutch investigators were highly selective and appeared to be tailored to produce the desired result. Aspects of the case that might point to Ukrainian guilt, such as eyewitness accounts of military aircraft in the area and Russian air traffic control data, were completely omitted from the investigation. Moreover, no mention was made of the cockpit perforations that were perfectly round and just the right size to match a 30mm projectile from an SU-25, as described by OSCE observer Michael Bociurkiw.
All in all, the results of the Dutch study seem deliberately fashioned to make the Ukrainians appear not guilty. If their study had shown an SU-25 had shot down the Boeing 777, it would have incriminated the Kiev government or Ukrainian military beyond any doubt. Instead, the Dutch dismissed the SU-25 scenario almost out of hand, even though it seems the most likely possibility. Perhaps this was not a coincidence.
Our conclusion is that the SU-25 scenario remains the most probable, and that the Dutch investigation proves nothing in this regard.
For myself to compile in a day and a half an analysis of a document that took a year and three months for the Dutch to produce means that there may be errors and omissions in my presentation. Still, I felt the analysis needed to be published quickly. Updates will appear as appropriate. The lack of photographs is due to the fact that the images from the Dutch report could not be copied with the software I have available.
Update October 20, 2015
by Kennedy Applebaum
Since posting the above rebuttal, I ran across a review article about the Dutch MH17 Crash Investigation Report that challenged some of the points I made. The review article implied that the reason eye-witness and air traffic controller testimonies were omitted from the official crash report was that these were to be considered in the parallel criminal investigation, to be released in a later report.
Thinking that in my haste to publish I might have missed something, I reexamined the Dutch crash report. And no, there is no mention of any reason why personal testimony was not considered. Nor was there any suggestion that this possibly pivotal evidence would be relegated to the criminal investigation phase. Of course, it might be that the Dutch are intending to do this. But even if they are, could they say in advance that personal testimony had no bearing on the cause of the crash? Could they a priori declare it irrelevant to the crash investigation? Of course not. They would need to examine the testimony first to determine its relevance, and then discuss this in the crash report, which they did not.
About the parallel criminal investigation, the crash report says on page 7: “The Dutch Safety Board has investigated the causes of the MH17 crash and why the aeroplane was flying over the eastern part of Ukraine. This report contains the results of that investigation. The Board is aware that this does not answer one important question the question of who is to blame for the crash. It is the task of the criminal investigation to provide that answer.” No mention is made of the issue of personal testimony. Nor is it mentioned elsewhere.
I would say that the Dutch have created the rules. And as anyone knows, in a complex game, it is the rule-maker who often fixes the outcome. It is easy to make rules sound plausible. But the rules still may reflect the interests of the rule-maker. “So, oh yes, personal testimony should not have any bearing on the cause of the crash, so we will leave it out. Isn’t that a fair rule?” the Dutch might have said with a shrug.
I can’t blame the Dutch. Can you imagine the political blowback if their results pointed to Ukrainian guilt? The Dutch team did what they had to do: set up the rules so that the delicate question of who was to blame would not come up. At least not yet. The BUK missile scenario leaves the guilt question open, while the SU-25 scenario, as supported by eye-witnesses, would have pinned the guilt on Ukraine.
About the Dutch making their own rules, the crash report plausibly argues on page 2: “The aim in the Netherlands is to limit the risk of accidents and incidents as much as possible. If accidents or near accidents nevertheless occur, a thorough investigation into the causes, irrespective of who are to blame, may help to prevent similar problems from occurring in the future. It is important to ensure that the investigation is carried out independently from the parties involved. This is why the Dutch Safety Board itself selects the issues it wishes to investigate… [emphasis mine]” By implication, this statement already lays plausible groundwork for omitting personal testimony—or indeed, omitting anything that might pose political problems for the Dutch.
As an aside, note the Dutch investigators acted in contradiction to their own statement. They used a great deal of Ukrainian data, including simulations. So the investigation was not carried out “independently from the parties involved”.
On page 18, the report lists the areas they intended to investigate:
• Analyses of data, including Cockpit Voice Recorder, Flight Data Recorder and other sources, recorded onboard the aeroplane
• Analyses of recorded air traffic control surveillance data
• Analysis of meteorological circumstances
• Forensic examination of wreckage recovered and possible foreign objects, if found
• Results of the pathological investigation;
• Analyses of the in-flight break-up sequence;
• Assessment of the operator’s and State of Occurrence’s management of flight safety over a region of conflict or high security risk
• Any other aspects that are identified during the investigation.
This shows the investigation was never meant to include personal testimony. Not coincidentally, the unspoken rule of omitting personal testimony is quite beneficial to the Ukrainians. Among the most damning evidence against them would be accounts of military aircraft sightings, and reports of unusual circumstances in the air control tower, such as those described by possible witness Carlos (@Spainbuca).
About the incompleteness of the radar data I mentioned in the rebuttal, there is a further example I overlooked on my first pass. The Dutch report says on page 39: “The combined primary radar and secondary surveillance radar data from the Russian Federation’s Air Navigation Service Provider, GKOVD, was provided in the form of a video containing a radar screen replay. No other data was received. Due to the absence of raw data, it was not possible to verify the video radar replay.” What this means is that the Ukrainians, who are suspects in the case, were the sole providers of raw radar data, and even that was incomplete, due to the fact that their primary civilian and military radar systems were inoperative.
Another odd item is that the technical details of BUK missile inolvement were relegated to Appendices X, Y and Z, rather than presented in the body of the report. I was unable to locate these appendices at the URL given, so I have not seen them. The Dutch team, in any case, do not guarantee the contents of the appendices. On page 278, they offer the following disclaimer: “Appendices X, Y and Z are reports produced at the request of the Dutch Safety Board by third parties. It should be noted that the Dutch Safety Board is not responsible for the content of the documents. In the event of differences between the content of the reports produced by third parties and the report of the Dutch Safety Board, the Board’s opinion is the one contained in its report.” So even these appendices are not deemed reliable.
The Dutch made the rules. The Dutch said they made the rules. The question is, why did the Dutch run the investigation in the first place? They were in an impossible situation. And they handled it with relative grace.
Yet, why was there not, for example, an investigation run by Malaysia employing Russian, Japanese and German research teams? Any such group would have been more unbiased than an exclusive safety board from a country in Western Europe.
The review article I read also sarcastically brushed off the SU-25 scenario. Yet, the Dutch report in no way disproves that scenario.
Who benefited from the crash of the Malaysian airliner? See