A Russian-made mobile air-defense missile appears to have struck the Malaysian Airlines jetliner that crashed in eastern Ukraine, according to U.S. military and intelligence officials.
While the matter is still being reviewed, evidence so far indicates that the plane was hit by a weapons system known as the SA-11 or Buk, according to four officials who asked for anonymity because of the continuing investigation. The surface-to-air missiles, widely deployed in Eastern Europe, are mounted on vehicles that resemble tanks.
It’s not clear who fired the missile at the airliner, killing all 298 people on board today, or whether those responsible knew they were shooting at a commercial flight, the officials said. The government in Kiev blamed pro-Russian rebels and the separatists denied the accusation.
Ukraine’s state security service said it intercepted phone conversations among militants discussing the missile strike, which knocked Flight 17 from the sky near the eastern town of Torez, about 30 kilometers (18 miles) from the Russian border. The Malaysian Airline System Bhd. airliner, a Boeing Co. 777, was traveling from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur.
The remains of the plane fell in an area east of the city of Donetsk that is within the territory held by pro-Russian separatists.
Some of the separatists are veterans of the Russian or Ukrainian militaries who may have been trained on the SA-11, a U.S. intelligence official said.
It’s not clear whether the Russian-made SA-11’s target acquisition radar read a signal from the plane that would have identified it as a civilian airliner, said a second intelligence official.
A commercial plane is an easy mark for a weapons system such as the SA-11.
“It’s a piece of cake,” said Theodore Postol, a professor of science, technology and national security policy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Massachusetts, who has studied air defense systems.
Ukraine blamed rebels and Russia.
“Terrorists used a Buk missile system kindly provided by Putin to shoot down a civilian plane,” Ukrainian Interior Ministry adviser Anton Gerashchenko said on Facebook. Russian President Vladimir Putin has denied supplying the Ukrainian separatists with weapons.
The Malaysian plane was said to be flying at about 33,000 feet. The plane was out of range for shoulder-fired missiles, which would be unable to reach an airliner flying at an altitude of more than 10,000 feet, according to Doug Richardson, editor of IHS Jane’s Missiles and Rockets.
The SA-11, which is used by Ukraine’s military as well as Russia’s, can hit targets up to 72,000 feet (22,000 meters), Richardson said in a statement.
The SA-11 is mostly automated, so that someone with minimal military training with air-defense systems should be able to strike a commercial airliner, according to analysts such as Postol.
“The operator requires little skill, if it is properly set up, to fire at a blip on the radar screen,” said Anthony Cordesman, a defense analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
The SA-11 missile system has a device known as an IFF, or Identification Friend from Foe, and commercial airliners typically have a beacon that transmits their identification, Postol said.
It’s possible the shooter didn’t know how to interpret the data or use the IFF properly, Postol said. It’s also possible the airliner’s beacon was turned off or not working, he said.
“A trained radar operator should be able to tell the difference between a Boeing 777 and an AN-26” cargo plane, said Bruce MacDonald, a former assistant director for national security at the White House Office of Science and Technology, who is now an independent consultant. “They operate at different altitudes, fly at different speeds.”
Rebels in the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic in eastern Ukraine denied involvement in the airliner’s downing, the Interfax news service reported.
Ukraine has lost several aircraft to rebel forces. It said Russia shot down one of its fighter jets yesterday, while earlier this week an An-26 transport plane was hit by a “powerful weapon” not previously used by the separatists, according to Defense Minister Valeriy Geletey.
On June 14, a rebel anti-aircraft missile downed a military transport plane as it neared Luhansk airport, killing 49 soldiers.
The U.S. State Department issued a “fact sheet” on July 14 saying Russia is providing separatists in eastern Ukraine with air-defense systems and other weapons. “More advanced air-defense systems” recently arrived at a Russian deployment site near the Ukrainian border to supply the separatists, the State Department said.
Donetsk separatists last month seized SA-11 missile systems from an air defense regiment of the Ukrainian army, according to a June 29 report by the Russian state news agency RIA, which cited an unnamed militia representative.
Putin put responsibility for the crash on Ukraine.
“This tragedy wouldn’t have happened if there was peace in this land, or at least if fighting hadn’t resumed in the southeast of Ukraine,” Putin said, according to a statement released by the Kremlin. “Undoubtedly, the state on whose territory this happened is responsible for this awful tragedy.”