The downing of Malaysian Airlines flight MH 17 has brought the world focus to flight safety over conflict area, and particularly, ground to air weapons. In the tense Cold War, the Soviet understood that the NATO forces will have the upper hand in air superiority, and since had developed a wide array of anti-aircraft systems that are easy to produce, highly mobile and effective. To give a comparison, the Soviet Union had developed at least 15 production type mobile SAMs (including shoulder launched MANPADS), compared to American’s five throughout the Cold War and today.
After the fall of Soviet Union, many of these systems were passed down to former USSR states, eg Ukraine, and similarly, their officers and soldiers were Russian trained. Soviet air defence systems are designed for tactical and divisional air defence for their massive land armies.Highly mobile, and easy to set up, they can catch up and move along with armoured forces yet providing potent punch to any potential air attacks.These de-centralised air defence systems have their own search radars, command posts and usually six firing units. In the case of the MH17 incident, the said system is the 9K37 Buk (Beech Wood) NATO designation, SA-11 Gadfly. The missiles are mounted on the GM569 tracked chassis which travel 45km/h off roads, its primary target acquisition radar is the 9S18M1 (Snow Drift) and 9S35M1 (Fire Dome) tracking radar. Now, although these radars have Identification Friend or Foe (IFF) capability, a civil liner will still appear as not friendly. It is also not certain if they have secondary radar functions, will be enable the radar users to identify the Squawk code, which will in turn allow the operator to identity the 777. However, since the Pro Russian separatist Buk are operating independently from any central C2 unit, they might lack the flight plan data available to identify any overflying civil aircraft. Also should any airliners change their squawk code inflight, ground radar user will not positively iden the airliners if they are holding an outdated flight plan. This was also one of the many factors that downed Iran Air 655 in July 1988 by US cruiser USS Vincennes.
Now it is almost certain that Russia has supplied the SA-11 Buk to Pro Russian separatist, something that was all so familiar in the Cold War years when Soviet Union also handed over supplies and equipment to Vietnam, North Korea and some operated by Russian operators. In the case of MH-17, the relatively sophisticated (Russian equipment are designed to be easily trained and operated) are likely to be used by former Ukrainian soldiers or as above, by Russian soldiers disguised as separatists or with Russian guidance and advise. The shooting down of a Antonov An-26 transport plane days before MH-17 is probably the separatist’s intention to prove their worth to Russia and in return, more supplies and newer fighting equipment to go against Ukraine forces. The separatist’s over zealousness to add another trophy o their count probably caused the lack of rules of engagement, which downed the innocent 777.
The Buk’s shoot and scoot ability is clearly seen as the world continues to search for the murder weapon that downed the civilian airliner, although with help of social media and geo locating, its believed to be in the midst of Torez.
Flying across conflicted areas are not uncommon, and the fighting areas over eastern Ukraine were implemented a restriction to an upper limit of 32,000ft (FL320), which is an awfully long way up. Many has blamed MAS for operating across conflict zones, but however I feel it is the role of air traffic agencies and regulatory agencies that under accessed the rising dangers of surface to air weapons that is introduced into the front. Similarly, MH 17 and other airlines are under the jurisdiction of the Kiev ATC, and why they instructed MH 17 to descend to FL 330 is still an unknown. However in any case, the SA-11 system is still able to down a flying airliner in cruising altitude as high as FL460.
Till then, our thoughts are with the friends and families of the victims of MH17, and I hope a resolution will be made between the investigation team, Russia and Ukrainian forces soon.