Shooters ‘hit wrong plane’

2014-07-22 00:00

IF Ukrainian rebels shot down the Malaysian jetliner, killing 298 people, it may have been because they didn’t have the right systems in place to distinguish between military and civilian aircraft, experts said on Saturday.

American officials said last Friday that they believe the Boeing 777 was brought down by an SA-11 missile fired from an area of eastern Ukraine controlled by pro-Russian separatists. UN ambassador Samantha Power said the Russians might have provided technical help to the rebels to operate the systems. But to function correctly, an SA-11 launcher, also known as a Buk, is supposed to be connected to a central radar command to be certain of what kind of aircraft it is shooting at.

From the information that has come to light, the rebels don’t appear to have such systems, said Pavel Felgenhauer, a respected defence columnist for Novaya Gazeta, a Moscow newspaper known for its critical coverage of Russian affairs.

“They could easily make a tragic mistake and shoot down a passenger plane when indeed they wanted to shoot down a Ukrainian transport plane,” he said.

Last Friday, Russia’s state-owned RIA Novosti news agency also quoted Konstantin Sivkov, director of the Academy of Geopolitical Problems, as saying Buk missiles “should be provided with external systems of target identification, that is, radio-location systems. It’s an entire system. And the insurgents certainly don’t have radio location.”

“Just seeing a blip on a radar screen was in no away sufficient to make a targeting decision,” said Keir Giles, associate fellow for international security and Russia and Eurasia programmes at the Royal Institute of International Affairs. “You need an additional radar system to which these weapons systems can be connected for additional information.”

Social-media postings from the rebels in the immediate aftermath of last Thursday’s Malaysia Airlines disaster also suggested they had assumed civilian aircraft were avoiding the area and that anything in the air was hostile.

If a missile was fired without attempting to identify the aircraft, the destruction of Malaysia Flight 17 would be an act of criminal negligence, said retired U.S. Air Force Major-General Robert Latiff. He said commercial airliners operate on known communications frequencies and emit signals that identify them and give their altitude and speed. “It doesn’t sound like the separatists were using any of this [information],” said Latiff.

“My guess is the system’s radar saw a return from a big cargo plane flying at 30000 feet or so and either automatically fired, or some aggressive, itchy operator fired, not wanting to miss an opportunity. It doesn’t seem they chose to seek any additional data before pulling the trigger,” he said.

A Nato military officer, speaking on condition of anonymity because he is not authorised to make public statements, said a Buk launcher, which is a self-propelled tracked vehicle resembling a tank, is ordinarily under the orders of a separate command post vehicle.

“In a totally textbook way of setting up, the command post vehicle assigns targets and designates the firing units — launcher 1 or launcher 2,” the officer said.

Once targeted by such a potent weapon, the Boeing twinjet would have had little chance. Edward Hunt, a senior consultant for IHS Jane’s, which provides news and analysis on defence and geopolitical issues, said a commercial plane is not a difficult target for someone who knows how to operate a surface-to-air missile system. “Civilian aircraft fly in a straight line,” Hunt said. “It probably didn’t even know it was targeted.”

In her remarks to the UN Security Council, Power said that a journalist had reported seeing an SA-11 system early last Thursday in separatist-controlled territory near Snizhne, “and separatists were spotted hours before the incident with an SA-11 SAM system close to the site where the plane came down”.

AP journalists also saw a rocket launcher near Snizhne last Thursday.

Rebels bragged in a June 29 report carried by a Russian news agency that they had some Buk missile systems from Ukrainian stocks. A few weeks later, rebels shot down a Ukrainian Antonov 26, a military transport plane.

If Thursday’s disaster was due to mistaken identity, it would not be the first.

In 2001, Siberian Airlines Flight 1812, travelling from Israel, to Russia, plunged into the Black Sea, killing all 78 aboard. The Ukrainian military at first denied responsibility but later admitted its military mistakenly shot down the plane during a training exercise. — Sapa

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