Without radar, missile may not have identified jet

If Ukrainian rebels shot down the Malaysian jetliner, killing 298 people, it may have been because they didn’t have the right systems in place to distinguish between military and civilian aircraft, experts said at the weekend.

American officials said on Friday that they believe the Boeing 777 was brought down by an SA-11 missile fired from an area of eastern Ukraine controlled by pro-Russian separatists. UN Ambassador Samantha Power said the Russians might have provided technical help to the rebels to operate the systems. However, to function correctly, an SA-11 launcher, also known as a Buk, is supposed to be connected to a central radar command 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 defence columnist for Novaya Gazeta, a Moscow-based 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.”

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 back-up, 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 away sufficient to make a targeting decision,” said Keir Giles, associate fellow for international security and Russia and Eurasia programmes 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 in the immediate aftermath of 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 attempting to identify the aircraft, the destruction of Malaysia Flight 17 would be an act of criminal negligence, said retired US Air Force Major General Robert Latiff. He said commercial airliners operate on known communications frequencies and emit signals that identify them and give altitude and speed.

A NATO military officer, speaking on condition of anonymity, said a Buk launcher, which is a self-propelled tracked vehicle resembling a tank, is ordinarily under the orders of a separate command post vehicle. “In a totally textbook way of setting up, the command post vehicle assigns targets and designates the firing units — launcher 1 or launcher 2.”

Once targeted by such a weapon, the Boeing wide-body twinjet would have had little chance. Edward Hunt, a senior consultant for IHS Jane’s, which provides news and analysis on defence and geopolitical issues, said a commercial plane is not a difficult target for someone who knows how to operate a surface-to-air missile system.

“Civilian aircraft fly in a straight line. A civilian aircraft doesn’t try to take evasive action. It probably didn’t even know it was targeted.”

If Thursday’s disaster was due to mistaken identity, it would not be the first. Soviet air defences in 1983 accidentally shot down Korean Airlines Flight 007, killing 269. In 1988, the USS Vincennes, a guided missile cruiser, brought down Iran Air Flight 655, with 290 people aboard, after mistaking it for an attacking warplane.

In October 2001, Siberian Airlines Flight 1812, travelling from Tel Aviv, Israel, to Novosibirsk, Russia, plunged into the Black Sea, killing all 78 aboard. The Ukrainian military at first denied responsibility, but later admitted its military mistakenly shot down the plane.

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