THE DOWNING OF THE MALAYSIAN AIRLINER: AVOID RUSHING TO JUDGEMENT
By Anthony H. Cordesman
18 Jul 14. The exact cause of the downing of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 remains uncertain, but seems most likely to be the result of a firing of either the SA-11 (Gadfly 1979) or SA-17 “Buk Mk. 2” missile (Grizzly 2007). The SA-11 and SA-17 launch vehicles and missiles (four per vehicle) look very similar. The 17 has upgraded missiles but it is hard to see the difference.
It seems very doubtful that Russia would have used its SA-20(or S-300) air defense missiles, and there have been no suggestions that these are in rebel hands or they could use them. The SA-20 is an extremely sophisticated system operated by experienced crews with excellent ability to characterize flight paths and read out IIF (Identification friend of foe) and transponder data. Human error from a SA-20 unit is still possible, but seem very unlikely.
No MANPAD (man-portable air defense system) can reach and track a passenger aircraft flying at cruise altitudes of around 30,000 feet and normal flight speeds. However, both the SA-11 and SA-17 can easily intercept and track such an aircraft. Their radars can track high altitude planes to ranges of up to 120 kilometers.
Both systems can kill large aircraft flying at high altitudes. The SA-11 can hit targets at altitudes up to 45,000-60,000 feet, the SA-17 up to 70,000-82,000 feet. Their maximum intercept maximum ranges are 12 miles (some sources say 45 kilometers) and 27 miles (some sources say 45 kilometers) respectively.
The SA-11 and SA-17 are systems that are broadly deployed in Former Soviet Union forces. They are successors to the SA-6, and are in both Ukrainian and Russian hands. Rebel holdings are uncertain, but General Philip Breedlove, NATO Supreme Allied Commander Europe, warned in June that the Russian government had been training pro-Russian separatists inside Russia to have an “anti-aircraft capability.”
Breedlove said that, “What we see in training on the east side of the border is big equipment, tanks, APCs [Armored Personnel Carriers], anti-aircraft capability, and now we see those capabilities being used on the west side of the border,” Breedlove said he had not seen training in the smaller MANPAD systems, but, “we have seen vehicle-borne capability being trained.”
There were earlier Russian reports that the rebels had captured Ukrainian surface-to-air defense but no details. The SA-11 or SA-17 are, however, logical systems for rebels to have used earlier in shooting down a Ukrainian AN-26 military transport at a reported altitude of 26,000 feet.
A passenger aircraft would have no warning of such an attack, and its black box would not record any data on the intercept. It is extremely unlikely that the pilots ever saw the incoming missile or could accurately characterize it if they had only seconds in which to speak in ways the black box could record.
It is unclear what can be detected from photos or on-site examination. The damage might show a “fingerprint” from a given type of warhead, but it is extremely unlikely any warhead fragments will be recovered that could help track who fired the missile.
U.S. and Ukrainian surveillance assets are unclear. U.S. imagery satellites do not detect this kind of missile launch. Depending on U.S. SIGINT and ELINT assets, the United States might or might not get data on radar detection and tracking. The SA-11 and SA-17 systems also present the problem that there is a separate detection/tracking radar and command vehicle, but that the individual vehicles launching the missile have their own radars and can operate independently. The data links between the radar vehicle, command vehicle, and fire units are also often ground connections to make detection and warning more difficult – which also means less intelligence collection capability.
The circumstances surrounding the actual firing are still uncertain, but several factors are importa