A commercial aircraft operated by Malaysia Airlines crashed with nearly 300 passengers on board while flying over the contested Donetsk region in eastern Ukraine on 17 July. As of this writing it was unclear what caused the incident, but Ukrainian government officials stated that the aircraft was believed to have been felled by a surface-to-air missile (SAM).
Specifically, some Ukrainian officials suggested it was a Buk (SA-11 'Gadfly') self-propelled SAM system or some variant of the Buk.
Russia and Ukraine have versions of the Buk in their inventories, and it is possible that pro-Russian separatists in the Donetsk region have obtained one of the systems as well.
US intelligence officials and Vice-President Joe Biden have said they believe the aircraft was shot down, but have yet not provided any specific information.
An airliner cruising at around 30,000 ft altitude would be well above the coverage of shoulder-fired man-portable missile systems, which typically can engage targets flying at up to around 10,000 ft.
Ukraine has long-range Soviet-era missile systems in its inventory such as the SA-2, -3, -5, and -12 that would have no difficulty to downing a target flying at 30,000 ft. However, these systems are deployed at permanent launch sites that have launchers and associated radars located at specific locations distributed around the site. Their operators would have a good idea of the air traffic present in the surrounding area, so it would be unlikely to mistake an airliner for a combat aircraft.
Downing an airliner flying at normal cruise altitude would require a mobile SAM system such as a Kub (known to the West as the SA-6 'Gainful) or the 'Buk'. Both are in Ukrainian service.
The Kub can cope with targets flying at up to 26,000 ft (8,000 m), so it cannot reach the reported cruise height of the airliner. Buk coverage, however, extends up to 72,000 ft, with its maximum range being 32 km.
So at first sight, the Buk seems a good candidate for this incident.
When fielded, a Buk firing battery consists of:
- the 9S18M1Target Acquisition Radar used to acquire potential aerial targets and transmit their position and tracks;
- the 9S470M1 Command Post (CP) vehicle (contains the missile battery's data display and control system; digital fire-control computer, which assigns targets to individual launchers; and computes the engagement); and
- one or more 9A310M1S launchers each armed with four radar-guided missiles.
All three of these systems are vehicle-mounted.
In a normal engagement, all three would operate as an integrated weapon system and crew of the CP vehicle are likely to have a good idea of the local air activity.
However, a Buk launcher can also operate in stand-alone mode. Its built-in radar is normally used to track the target being engaged, but can be operated in a target-detection mode, allowing it to autonomously engage targets that were present in the radar's forward field of view.
Although it has its own identification friend or foe system, this is only able to establish whether the target being tracked is a friendly aircraft. It is the electronic equivalent of a sentry calling out: "Who goes there?". If there is no reply, all you know is that it is not one of your own combat aircraft. It would not give you a warning that you were tracking an airliner.
Operating Buk hardware would require a trained crew; with personnel who are currently trained operators or who learned how to operate the hardware while serving as conscripts.
Doug Richardson is IHS Jane's Missiles & Rockets editor, based in London.