WASHINGTON – Whoever fired the surface-to-air missile that brought down a passenger jet over eastern Ukraine would have needed extensive training to execute the mission, according to military experts.
Taking down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, traveling about 600 mph at an altitude of 33,000 feet, required vastly more expertise than, say, firing a shoulder-braced rocket-propelled grenade at a slow-moving helicopter. A crew of at least four would have been needed to accurately fire the truck-mounted Russian-made SA-11 missile, also known as a Buk missile system.
You’ve got to have people who are technically competent, said retired Army Maj. Gen. Stephen V. Reeves, who served as an intelligence officer in Western Europe.
The SA-11 is a 1972-era weapon system, and is not as technologically advanced or easy to operate as more modern weaponry.
This is a hard system to use, in today’s terms, said retired Army Lt. Gen. Patrick J. O’Reilly, a former director of the U.S. Missile Defense Agency, who estimated that each of the SA-11 crew members would have needed at least six months of training.
You don’t just take some folks off the street, and 30 days later they’re trained, he said.
Senior U.S. officials have said the missile appears to have been fired from an area of eastern Ukraine held by Russia-backed separatists, some of whom were spotted with an SA-11 launcher shortly before the missile was fired.
The SA-11 system is designed to identify a target with radar before and throughout the flight of the missile. The radar data are transmitted continuously to the missile, guiding it toward the target.
However, O’Reilly said that while the SA-11 can find and follow targets at altitudes up to 70,000 feet, the system is unable to distinguish between a military transport plane and a large passenger aircraft.
Those who fired at the Malaysian jetliner Thursday knew they were shooting a large aircraft, O’Reilly said. It’s such an old technology, it could very conceivably be they thought they were shooting down a military cargo plane or a large tanker. It is not unlikely they really thought that they were shooting down a military aircraft.
It may have been because they didn’t have the right systems in place to distinguish between military and civilian aircraft, experts said Saturday.
To function correctly, an SA-11 launcher is supposed to be connected to a central radar command – as opposed to acting alone – to be certain of exactly what kind of aircraft it is shooting at.
From the information that has come to light so far, the rebels don’t appear to have such systems, said Pavel Felgenhauer, a respected defense columnist for Novaya Gazeta, a Moscow newspaper known for its critical coverage of Russian affairs.
They could easily make a tragic mistake and shoot down a passenger plane when indeed they wanted to shoot down a Ukrainian transport plane, he said.
On Friday, Russia’s state-owned RIA Novosti news agency also quoted Konstantin Sivkov, director of the Academy of Geopolitical Problems, as saying Buk missiles should be provided with external systems of target identification, that is, radio-location systems. It’s an entire system. And the insurgents certainly don’t have radio-location.
Without a backup, a missile can be fired by operators who are not totally sure of what they are aiming at.
Just seeing a blip on a radar screen was in no way sufficient to make a targeting decision, said Keir Giles, associate fellow for international security and Russia and Eurasia programs at the Royal Institute of International Affairs. You need an additional radar system to which these weapons systems can be connected for additional information.
Social media postings from the rebels immediately after Thursday’s Malaysia Airlines disaster also suggested they had assumed civilian aircraft were avoiding the area and that anything in the air was hostile.
If a missile was fired without the attackers attempting to identify the aircraft, the destruction of Malaysia Flight 17 would be an act of criminal negligence, said retired U.S. Air Force Maj. Gen. Robert Latiff.
He said commercial airliners operate on known communications frequencies and emit signals that identify them and give their altitude and speed.
It doesn’t sound like the separatists were using any of this (information), or tried for that matter, said Latiff, who oversaw advanced weapons research and development for the Air Force and now teaches at the University of Notre Dame.