MH17 and Hawk RQ4 Eyes in the Skies – Ukraine

Another year to the day has passed since the shooting down of MH17 killing all on board.

The international Joint Investigation Team (JIT) continues to work toward attributing criminal responsibility.  That Buk 332 of the 53rd Anti-Aircraft Missile Brigade of the Russian Armed Forces will be found the offending unit there seems little doubt.

There is perhaps more doubt when it comes to who exactly pressed the button that launched the missile that murdered so many civilians.

It is possible that the Russian Buk crew fired the missile.  It is also possible that the “separatists” and/or “Russian volunteers” fired it with technical assistance and/or training from the Russian military crew.  However the Buk has been in service since the 1980s and therefore there are also a lot of people that have at one time or another been trained in its operation.  It is thus possible, albeit most unlikely, that the Russian proxies/mercenaries fired it while the current Russian military crew stood idly by.

It will be interesting to see just how far down the chain of command the JIT can go with regard appropriating personal criminal responsibility, as well as how far up.

Whatever the case, the JIT is likely to find the Buk system responsible is that of the Russian military and therefore there is a Russian chain of command responsible for its deployment into the occupied Donbas, and its return to the Russian Federation the following day.

It appears that the JIT criminal investigation will probably appear in the public domain in early 2018 when no doubt many within the Russian chain of command will be personally identified even if the identity of the individual who pushed the button may not be.

As a  result of MH17 there has been no military air sorties in or around the occupied Donbas since, thus keeping military engagement very much land (and occasionally sea) based.

Aerial warfare by all parties has therefore been restricted to the tactical use of low altitude intelligence gathering drones, the fairly frequent hostile EW efforts to disrupt them, or their infrequent shooting down – including OSCE drones.

Or has it?

For example, just before 0800 hours on 16th July, from Sigonella, Sicily, a US RQ4 Hawk UAV made its way toward Ukrainian airspace.  Perhaps part of the on-going NATO Sea Breeze exercise taking place in the Black Sea and within Ukrainian territory?

No.

While heading toward Crimea at about 17000 meters, the Hawk became a blip on the Russian radar system, subsequently leading to the launch of a Russian SU 27 aircraft from the Belbek airfield at approximately 1025 hours.

The Russians it appears had intermittent eye contact with the Hawk for about 2.5 hours as the Hawk, travelling at about 650 kph, constantly changed altitude and course remaining within the Ukrainian airspace of Kherson and Mykolaiv.

Having passed Crimea, the US Hawk then headed toward Mariupol and the “contact line” with the occupied Donbas and then along the “contact line” before heading westward again deep within Ukrainian airspace before it then entered Romanian airspace at approximately 2110 hours in the Chernivtsi region, presumably then onward and returning to Sigonella, Sicily some 16 hours hours after its departure.

How regular, or indeed how infrequent, the US (and/or others) monitor the “contact line” and Crimea in this manner is a matter for a reader to ponder – as are the number of times the Russians decide to scramble – or not – in response.   There is, after all, no gain in shooting down a US Hawk drone in Ukrainian airspace for the Russians.

Nevertheless, this incident perhaps serves as a timely reminder on the third anniversary of the  MH17 crime, that there remains on-going military aerial sorties within Ukrainian airspace.  They simply do not directly result in the criminal deaths of MH17 as events 3 years ago today did.