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A Clash in the Congo
Did a missile strike a military aircraft in the Democratic Republic of the Congo....or Rwanda? LOAC investigates.
Highlights from today’s post:
Reviewing a mid-air clash between Rwanda and the DRC
Lots and lots of geolocations
Some absolutely crazy witness footage
Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) have never been the best of friends. Rwanda and the M23 militant group accuse the DRC of supporting Hutu groups that took part in the Rwandan genocide. The DRC, for their part, accuse Rwanda of encouraging attacks by M23 fighters inside the DRC. MONUSCO, a UN mission, is trying to keep a fragile peace.
In the middle of this fraught environment, Rwandan forces fired a surface-to-air missile at a DRC fighter jet that Rwanda said violated their airspace on January 24. The attack, caught on film by plenty of witnesses, raises questions. Was the jet in Rwandan airspace? Did the attack itself take place in Rwanda or the DRC? What was the aircraft doing when it was hit?
Let’s set the stage. The aircraft, one of a two-jet formation, had just returned from conducting airstrikes against M23 militants in Kitchanga, a town in the eastern DRC. The two planes circled above the city of Goma, DRC after which the first aircraft landed without incident. Less than a minute later, a missile slammed into the second aircraft. The below video, geolocated to a rooftop about a quarter mile from the edge of the Goma airport, shows the first aircraft landing, the second aircraft circling, and then the second aircraft landing with a burning engine after being struck by the missile.
While this video indicates that the targeted plane was circling over Goma at some point before the missile was fired, a lot transpired between the first and second points. Sometime after the aircraft was pictured at point one above, a surface-to-air missile was fired from a hillside in Gisenyi, Rwanda, just across the border from Goma. This video, taken from the main Rwanda-DRC border crossing in Goma, shows the location of the launch:
The missile strikes the aircraft no more than a few hundred meters beyond the house pictured in the video, proving that the plane was, in fact, struck in DRC airspace.
But this is where things get interesting. We can figure out how fast the plane was flying because, in the first video, it took about 12 seconds for the aircraft to fly from the missile impact site (judging by when the explosion was heard and when the camera jerked in the video) to when it flew over the cameraperson’s location — about 1,270 meters. Basic arithmetic shows that the plane was flying at about 106 meters per second around when it was hit.
Meanwhile, a handy Wikipedia chart comparing the metrics of common surface-to-air missiles shows that their speeds range between 470 m/s (for a 9K34 Strela-3) and 1,360 m/s (for a British Starstreak).
The distance between the missile launch site and the impact site is about 3,318 meters. Depending on the exact missile system used, it therefore must have taken the missile between 2.44 and 7.06 seconds to fly from the launch site to the DRC aircraft. The unlucky aircraft, flying at 106 m/s for between 2.44 seconds and 7.06 seconds, could have flown a minimum of 258 meters and a maximum of 748 meters between launch and strike.
Whether high or low, both ranges are well within DRC airspace. During the missile’s flight time, it’s extremely unlikely the plane could have been within Rwanda. Put differently, the Rwandan soldier behind the trigger must have fired as the plane was still in the DRC.
There are, of course, a few caveats. First, these are rough measurements and rough arithmetic. My calculations and assumptions could be off — potentially by an insignificant amount, potentially more. Second, I’m assuming the missile traveled in a fairly straight line from the firing location to the targeted aircraft. That’s likely a faulty assumption, but probably not too faulty. All witness videos show the missile traveling in a more-or-less straight line to the plane, even though most surface-to-air missiles have the ability to turn slightly in midair.
Finally, these videos and calculations don’t answer whether the aircraft was ever in Rwandan territory — perhaps as the Rwandan soldier was aiming or preparing the missile or even before that. Again, maybe the plane was in Rwanda at some point, but I don’t buy it. Not only did the first video show the two planes circling over Goma — not Gisenyi — before being hit, but a VOA video and a witness video show the targeted plane flying in essentially a straight line toward the Goma runway before the explosion. If the plane was ever in Rwandan airspace, it was either extremely brief and/or not captured on video.
The other possibility, though remote, is that two missiles were fired at different times. However, it would be quite strange that the second, geolocatable missile was captured on video by dozens of witnesses, but the first one was not filmed by anyone.
If you’ve read any of my previous blog posts, you likely know that my line of work is not in international law. However, it does not take an expert in the laws of war to understand that there is something fundamentally different between firing at a plane violating a country’s airspace (Rwanda’s claim) and firing at a plane that didn’t (the DRC’s claim). If what I’ve laid out above is correct, the attempted shoot down recklessly endangered the fragile peace between Rwanda and the DRC.
There are going to be a lot of geolocations in this post, so, in the interest of space, I’m not going to show the exact feature-for-feature matchup between each witness video and the satellite images. Of course, if you’d like to see them, just let me know and I’d be happy to provide them.
For anyone curious, the pilot survived and the plane was able to land with some damage to its right wing and engine.