Malaysian Airlines MH17 shoot-down in Eastern Ukraine

Image: Wikipedia

Regarding same, a lot of self-professed ‘military experts’ have been saying that the pro-Russian rebels/separatists could not have shot down MH17 with a “Buk” missile because “it would take too much coordination” or “many years of training” or “they would need manufacturer codes” or even “they did not have a radar”, and possibly other equally absurd statements. Now I have studied 9K37 SAM system “Buk” during my military training in university, and my military rate is commander of a 9A310 self-propelled launcher (in the middle on the image to the right). I admit upfront I’ve never shot one for real, university trainees are second-line reserves, but we did do some simulations and practiced taking the system online from cold shutdown and back. Here’s what I have to say on the matter of “Buk” and MH17.

First of all, a 9A310 is capable of fully autonomous operation. It is equipped with a search, tracking and illumination radar (mechanical scan in older versions, phased array in newer versions; it is hidden under that green bulbous cover in the image) and a simple computer capable of detecting and locking onto targets, and normally has 4 missiles ready to fire. No codes need to be input for launching a missile, it’s not a nuclear weapon or anything, you only need the key to open the lock on the launch buttons. In a military setting, 9A310 usually acts as a part of a radar and command network on battery and battalion levels, but this is not mandatory.

As for training required to use the system, this depends very much on the circumstances of its use. In a tight anti-aircraft fight, when there are many targets on different altitude levels, maneuvering and employing anti-radar and anti-missile measures, with radar jamming active and radar-homing missiles around, it takes a highly trained officer and crew to use the system (I’m not nearly qualified). You can’t just rely on default automatic tracking modes to do the job for you. However, a commercial airliner is a single, non-maneuvering target flying at altitude, employing no counter-measures and with a radar signature like a barn. If any of the thousands and thousands of students who took the same military training course in universities in various locations in ex-USSR had their notes or a manual, they could take a functional 9A310 online (you have to throw some twenty switches in the correct order, check some lights and dials etc.) and shoot it single-handedly. The system would detect and track the plane automatically. The shooter would only have to move the cursor and push a couple of buttons to designate it as target, possibly throwing a switch to override IFF identification (I have no idea how would a Boeing-777 respond to a Soviet IFF ping), turn the key and push the launch button. Automatic tracking would do just fine guiding the missile. The shooter would keep an eye on the radar and tracking display until the hit. Commercial airliners are not built to withstand hits by high-explosive fragmentation warheads such as the one used in the 9M38 missile. My guess is that some hot fragments punctured the MH17’s fuel tanks — the plane was 3 hours out of Amsterdam and had already burned some fuel off — and the fuel-air mixture exploded, ripping the plane apart in mid-air. Or the fragments could hit and fracture the structural elements of the plane; the warhead creates several thousands of these fragments, which fly in a cone along the missile’s flight path, and a 777 is a big object. I hope the person who finds the tail of the missile (it should fall down mostly intact) has enough conscience to turn it over to the international investigators, once these are able to reach the site. My sincere condolences go to the friends and relatives of the deceased.

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One Response to Malaysian Airlines MH17 shoot-down in Eastern Ukraine

  1. Handle says:

    The main ground-forces-based surface-to-air missile capability in the US is the Patriot (the rest being Manpads like the Stinger) which is focused on countering other missiles during their terminal phases, but which can easily shoot down planes too. I’ve been to a launch during a field exercise and with a manual any reasonably intelligent person could figure it out in an hour. If you have even a single very intelligent person, or one trained person, you’d have no problem at all. Hell, even without the manual, most of the instructions and labels are written right on the thing!

    The main issue is that there are multiple trucks, and you need to set up and power up the big radar and establish communication with the antennae vehicle if they are distant from each other. Otherwise, it’s designed to be very, very simple.

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