There’re only two countries who know exactly what happened to Malaysian Flight MH17, which was shot down, killing all 298 people including 3 infants and 15 crew onboard. They’re United States and Russia obviously. But whether they want to tell the world the real story or otherwise is another matter. In spite of a commercial aircraft being blown off in the sky, the matter is more complicated than ordinary Joes’ and Janes’ would think.
Any executive decision by both superpowers needs to be decided with geo-political and military impact in mind. They have all the sophisticated technology that monitor each other in real-time. The U.S. operates fleets of listening satellites and early warning satellites that could have identified the location of a missile launch site and its trajectory as it shot the Malaysian aircraft. The Pentagon would have easily detected the launch because of its heat signature.
The U.S. Air Force also has Defense Support Program satellites that use infrared sensors to detect heat from missile and booster plumes against Earth’s background. That was how United States could tell in lightning speed it was the Russian-made Buk ground-to-air missile that destroyed the Boeing 777-200ER, and Russia doesn’t deny it. But despite knowing the type of weapon that hit the plane, the greatest challenge is to prove who did it.
At this moment, all the three parties – the Ukranian government, the pro-Russian separatists and even the Russian government itself – have denied launching any Buk missile. The Ukranian National Security and Defense Council said their army is not equipped with the Buk launcher. The rebel leaders said the same thing. But Russia has been accused of supplying the separatists with sophisticated and powerful weapons and this include Buk missile launcher.
Last month, Russian state media claimed the separatists have taken control of Buk missile system abandoned by the Ukranian army. So, it seems the separatists do have the deadly surface-to-air missile (SAM) – from either source. But the fact is all the three parties have the military expertise in operating and launching the missile. All of them could be lying about not having it.
Ukrainian spies have reported and filmed a suspect BUK missile launcher used in the attack which killed 298 innocent lives, with 2-missiles missing. There’re also tons of photos believed to be BUK SAM battery driven along a road in Torez, about 10-miles from the Malaysian MH17 crash area. The intelligence also believed the BUK SAM launcher together with the crews involved in the incident had been “terminated” by now to “eliminate evidence”. But what make BUK missile systems so deadly?
The Buk (which means beech tree in Russian), or Buk-M1 is also known as “SA-11 Gadfly” by United States and NATO. A newer version that is integrated with new missile is called Buk-M2 or simply “SA-17 Grizzly”. The latest version, Buk-M3, is scheduled for production. So it was either SA-11 or later version of SA-11’s that was used. The Buk missile system was designed by Russian designer Ardalion Rastov to replace its predecessor, Kub system in 1979.
It is a self-propelled and vehicle-mounted surface-to-air missile systems specifically designed to engage aircraft, cruise missiles and drones. Carrying 4-missiles on a tracked vehicle follows by a separate vehicle that carries early radars to guide the missiles, this mobility combination is what make the Buk missile systems extremely deadly.
Depending on the type of missiles, the SA-11’s system could launch missile up to 72,000 feet (22,000 metres), easily breaching Malaysian MH17’s altitude of merely 33,000 feet. The most sophisticated version of Buk is SA-21 Growler introduced by Russia in 2004. Also known as S-400, only Russia operates it and it could reach up to 98,000 metres and track 35 aerodynamics targets.
The SA-11’s radar can scan 360 degrees. When its crew (presumably the rebels) detected Malaysian MH17 at around 53 miles (85km) away they would have had between five and 10 minutes to acquire the plane, fire a missile and relocate. They need to relocate immediately as the powerful radar would give away their position. Yeah, it’s a hit and run kind of warfare.
Some airliners flying in conflict zones have missile warning alerts, but it’s highly likely the Malaysian MH17 didn’t have one. The pilots and crew would probably have had no indication a missile was coming, hence no distress call or whatsoever. The missile would not have flown directly into the jet, but drawn up close beneath it (65-feet), then detonated causing critical damage to the aircraft and an explosion which would have ignited the fuel onboard; causing destruction of the wing, tail, and fuselage.
The missile could be fitted with different types of warheads and depending on how you want to destroy the target, it could either cut an aircraft in half, set it on fire or simply shred it apart. All the innocent lives onboard flight MH17 had no idea what hit them. At Mach-3, the 9M28M1 travels at 1,020 metre/sec or 3,346 feet/sec, and it took 9.86 seconds to reach the height of 33,000 feet, the spot that would seal the fate of flight MH17. With a success rate of between 90-95%, the aircraft was doomed the moment the button was pressed.
Again, many are wondering if things could be better if Malaysian Airlines took “extreme” precautions measure such as re-route their flights to avoid the warzone airspace. Of course it does, but as usual, Transport Minister Liow Tiong Lai and even PM Najib Razak argued that the area was safe and besides, if Singapore Airlines uses it (before the disaster), then it should be perfectly alright to do so.
Well, that’s the risk you’ve to take, but considering how unlucky MAS has been after the disappearance of MH370, not to mention its financial problems, the airline shouldn’t have took the gamble. Considering Singapore flight SQ351 was just 25 km away from flight MH17, you simply can’t discount the “luck” factor. Besides, South Korea’s Korean Air and Asiana, as well as Australia’s Qantas have re-routed all their flights as early as March this year when Russian troops moved into Crimea. So, why didn’t Malaysia?
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