The United States and Ukraine are saying Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was hit by a missile while at cruise altitude over eastern Ukraine. Without being able to confirm that the missile was fired by pro-Russian rebels, U.S. intelligence said it detected both the launch and the explosion. This urgently raises the issue of why commercial flights had not been diverted from the skies over Ukraine and how war zones are defined these days.
While the Crimea was regarded as too dangerous to fly over because of military aircraft movements, eastern Ukraine was not deemed off-limits even though two Ukrainian military aircraft were shot down this week.
The scary fact is that it seems harder and harder to know what weapons are where in the world. Even an old shoulder-fired ground-to-air missile can bring down a plane that is taking off or landing. In 2002, the Al Muhajiroom terrorist group fired two shoulder-launched missiles at an Israeli Boeing 757 as it took off from Mombasa, Kenya, but narrowly missed. Airport security experts have long worried that perimeter surveillance is not tight enough in places where such missiles could be available.
The missile threat to civilian airplanes is greatest upon takeoff and landing, not when they are flying five miles above the earth.
It becomes a different order of concern where rogue armies without clear allegiances—like pro-Russian forces in Ukraine—are using missile batteries capable of reaching 72,000 feet. That means any airliner can be hit. Commercial airlines and their pilots flying over Ukraine probably assumed cruise altitude would keep airliners safe from the type of shoulder-fired missiles terrorists may have. They never anticipated being targeted by weapons designed to guard the Red Army for World War III.
Russia should be regarded as culpable if separatists brought down this plane. After all, they have allowed and encouraged freelance armies to harass Ukrainian forces and equipped them with an arsenal of weapons to do it. Already, members of Congress have called the incident a “terrorist attack” and “act of war.”
Ironically, the worst previous military strike on a commercial flight was when a missile fired from the USS Vincennes destroyed an Iranian Airbus over the Persian Gulf in 1988, killing 299 people, including 66 children. The ship’s crew mistook the airliner for an incoming missile during a tense period in the Gulf.
As for an investigation, the crash site has already been contaminated by local forces. There will be an international outcry, if, as reported, the black box is on its way to Moscow.