Russia's military intelligence agency, the GRU, suspects that US-inspired industrial espionage may have caused the May 9 crash in Indonesia of a Sukhoi Superjet 100 – Russia's only hopeful entry in the civilian aviation market – according to Moscow's leading tabloid newspaper, the usually reliable and officially connected Komsomolskaya Pravda.
While most Russian aviation experts contacted today dismissed the sabotage theory, they say there is a deepening mystery about how Russia's most modern civil aircraft, with all its systems apparently functioning perfectly, came to slam into the side of a mile-high volcano during a routine demonstration flight.
"All the theories put forward so far are badly flawed, there is a shortage of hard information and there are a lot of irresponsible rumors," says Roman Gusarov, editor of Avia.ru, an online aviation journal. "I am afraid that Russia is not going to emerge from this story without taking a black eye."
Citing an unnamed GRU general, Komsomolskaya Pravda claimed that electronic jamming of the plane's on board equipment is the most plausible explanation for how the jet, which was making a demonstration flight out of Jakarta airport with 45 people aboard, smashed into a mountainside even though an initial investigation has found that its terrain and collision avoidance systems were all functioning properly.
"We are investigating the theory that it was industrial sabotage," the GRU officer is quoted as saying. He said that Russian intelligence has long monitored the activities of US military electronic specialists at the Jakarta airport.
"We know that they have special equipment that can cut communications between an aircraft and the ground or interfere with the parameters on board," he said. "For example, the plane is flying at one altitude, but after interference from the ground onboard equipment shows another."
The investigation has so far turned up the plane's "black box" cockpit voice recorder, which shows that no system-failure alarms went off during the plane's final minutes, nor did the crew take any audible emergency action. But the aircraft's digital flight recorder, which monitors flight systems and engine performance, remains missing in the rough jungle terrain around Mount Salak, where at least seven other deadly air disasters have occurred.
The biggest question about the crash is why the SuperJet's pilot, Alexander Yablontsev, one of Russia's most experienced test pilots, requested permission to descend amid a rainstorm in a notoriously mountainous area – and why a ground controller in Jakarta granted that permission.
"Maybe he didn't see that the plane was heading straight at the mountain. On the other hand, we don't rule out the possibility that this was deliberate industrial sabotage to drive our aircraft from the market," an unnamed official at Sukhoi, the plane's manufacturer, told Komsomolskaya Pravda. "Fortunately, we don't foresee any loss of orders [for the SuperJet]."
The SuperJet is a medium-range 100-seat airliner whose $35 million price tag makes it the ideal replacement for hundreds of aging Soviet-era planes on Russia's myriad of far-flung regional routes. It is also greatly hoped that the new plane will pull Russia's depressed and scandal-ridden aviation industry into the 21st century by succeeding on international markets against competitors like the Canadian Bombardier Inc. and the Brazilian Embraer SA.
It's not the first time Russian officials have blamed a technological disaster on foreign meddling. Earlier this year the head of the space agency Roskosmos, Vladimir Popovkin, hinted that the failure of the ambitious Phobos-Grunt probe to the moons of Mars might have been caused by US electronic jamming of the vehicle in the Earth's "radar shadow" where Russian controllers couldn't see it happening.
(Such speculations are not always necessarily wrong. In 2004 a former secretary of the Air Force and special adviser to President Ronald revealed in his book "At the Abyss: An Insider's History of the Cold War" that in the 1980s the CIA used cyber warfare to sabotage the USSR's trans-Siberian pipeline for delivering Soviet gas to Western Europe, which caused a massive "3-kiloton" blast that destroyed a huge section of the line. Some critics have labeled that account "rubbish").
Mr. Gusarov says that Sukhoi has handled the information side of the SuperJet disaster very badly.
"From the very beginning they developed this plane as if it were a secret combat jet rather than a civil airliner," he says. "Now they're putting out contradictory statements, and making all sorts of premature declarations. For instance, how can they assert that there were no system failures based on an examination of the cockpit voice recorder alone?
"Of course, all possible theories are bad. Either we have a fault with our newest and most hopeful plane, or with one of Russia's finest aircrews. So, finding a scapegoat, putting out a story about some malicious external force bent on wrecking the SuperJet is just the thing they needed."
Oleg Pantaleyev, an expert with Aviaport.ru, an online aviation news service, points out that the US does not produce this particular class of aircraft, and several foreign firms, including Boeing, have been involved in the SuperJet's development and have big stakes in its success.
"This is a difficult investigation because part of the black box is missing, and the terrain makes it very hard to retrieve all the plane's fragments," he says. "It takes time to complete a probe of this complexity, and we can't expect any hard conclusions soon.
"It's this very lack of objective information plus low professional ethics that gives rise to all these rumors. They should be ignored."