Apparent shrapnel damage to the wreckage of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 supports the theory that the plane was shot down by a Russian-made radar-guided missile, an expert told NBC News on Wednesday.
The U.S. believes the Boeing 777 was shot down by pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine who were trained and supported by Moscow. While intelligence officials said they can find no direct link to Russian President Vladimir Putin, they believe the airliner was downed by a Soviet-developed SA-11 Buk missile.
Research analyst Justin Bronk said photos of the wreckage support this idea - although he warned the findings would bring investigators no closer to knowing who pulled the trigger, as Ukraine, Russia and the separatists are all believed to posses the technology.
"Current evidence of the damage appears to suggest that [the missile] exploded slightly ahead of and beneath the port wing, near the cockpit," said Bronk, who is based at the military sciences program at London's Royal United Services Institution. "That would have caused catastrophic damage with shrapnel."
This type of missile would have exploded up to 100 feet away from the aircraft, Bronk said, showering the Boeing's largest section with shrapnel that is designed to break apart its target in midair. This would have caused "instant decompression" inside the cabin, he said. Even people at the rear of the plane would only have been aware of what was happening for a few seconds. This may explain why there was no mayday call.
The pro-Putin separatists have been implicated by a social media post by a commander championing the downing of a Ukrainian military plane on the day MH17 crashed. This was swiftly deleted as it became clear the plane was civilian. The Ukrainian government has also produced intercepted communications between rebels allegedly discussing their role in the incident. However, the veracity of those allegations could not be confirmed by NBC News.
Russia and its state-controlled media have attempted to present counter theories, such as the idea that Ukraine's military was trying to target Putin's presidential plane or that the CIA was involved. Another theory put forward by Moscow - that a Ukrainian fighter jet was in some way responsible - has been roundly rejected by experts, including Bronk.
An air-to-air heat-seeking missile fired by a fighter jet would have targeted the airliner's engines and produced very a different type damage, he said. The Malaysia Airlines plane would not have been torn apart in midair and the pilots could well have had time to send a distress signal. Furthermore, the Su-25 fighter jet Russia alleged was in the sky near the doomed aircraft cannot climb as high as the Boeing 777's 33,000-foot altitude.
The next phase of the investigation will involve analysis of the plane's black box recorders, which were transported Wednesday in the United Kingdom. Bronk said experts with the Air Accidents Investigation Branch (AAIB) would be able to analyze the sound from the explosion to determine the specific missile type.
Pieces of wreckage are also destined for the AAIB, where experts should be able to glean more information about the cause of the crash. However, Western monitors have highlighted that some sections of the plane had been "hacked into" with diesel-powered saws at the chaotic, unsecured crash site that was controlled by rebels loyal to Russia for days.
Bronk said that while these elements would be key in determining what shot down the plane, the question of "who?" would still remain. To do that, he said, will almost certainly require satellite imagery to try to confirm images posted online purporting to show a SA-11 Buk being ferried over the Ukraine-Russia border in the wake of MH17's shootdown.