Wreckage From Flight MH17 Shows Telltale Signs of Missile Strike

Photographs of debris from the downed Malaysian jet show what seem to be telltale holes left by a missile strike on the Boeing Co. 777, defense experts said.

One image of a heavily perforated piece of fuselage that appears to come from the plane’s cockpit suggests damage from a ground-fired warhead, analysts at IHS Jane’s said yesterday

“The punctures seen in the photograph are relatively uniform in size,” said Reed Foster, manager, military capabilities at IHS Jane’s. “ This would potentially be consistent with a fragmentation-type warhead employed upon a number of modern and legacy surface-to-air missile systems.”

High-explosive fragmentation missiles of the kind thought to have been fired at Flight MH17 are designed to detonate short of the target, maximizing the weapon’s destructive power by flinging thousands of pieces of shrapnel across a wide area, said Doug Richardson, missiles and rockets editor at Jane’s.

The key photo seems to show part of the cockpit “peppered with fragments,” the defense publications group said. “It also shows what could be explosive residue and carbon sooting, aluminum oxide, or a combination of both all over it.”

Identifiable Patterns

While corpses from the crash are finally being sent for examination and the jet’s flight recorders are being released to investigators, television images have shown heavy machinery shifting burnt structures. A wide scatter pattern from missile fragments would help investigators pin down the cause of the crash even if only a limited amount of debris survives.

Different engagement angles between the missile and plane would produce identifiable patterns of damage, according to Jane’s, with a perpendicular attack producing a spread across almost the entire aircraft body, whereas a head-on engagement would result in a near-vertical swathe of shrapnel.

A level warhead burst would also cause many distinctive long streaks across the wing’s skin, IHS Jane’s said.

“For an engagement from the side, missile from below, the fragments would spread across the fuselage in a beam roughly running along the body,” it said.

Missiles fired from a mobile Buk surface-to-air launcher system are equipped with a proximity fuse that emits radio waves which are reflected back by the target, detonating the warhead at the point when it is closest to its quarry. Coverage extends up to 72,000 feet with a 32 kilometer (20 mile) range.

Targeting Risk

The firing battery for the Buk system, known as the SA-11 Gadfly under NATO naming protocols, comprises three vehicles -- a target-acquisition radar used to identify aerial objectives, a command post housing control systems and data displays, and a launcher armed with four radar-guided missiles.

While all three vehicles usually operate together, the Buk launcher can also work alone, acquiring targets via a built-in radar normally used just for tracking.

The risk of hitting the wrong target is then increased because the launcher’s “identification friend or foe” system cannot tell if an unrecognized plane is actually a jetliner, according to Richardson, himself a former missile engineer.

There have been examples of civil aircraft surviving air-to-air missile engagements, but not surface-to-air hits, Foster said separately, most likely because of the higher explosive yield involved and greater mass of fragmentary material.

The U.S. has indicated it believes that Russia supplied the missile that downed MH17, though Russian Ambassador to Malaysia Lyudmila Vorobyeva said at a news conference in Kuala Lumpur that it played no role and that Ukrainian separatists don’t have the required long-range anti-aircraft weapons.

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