Experts: Whoever brought down Malaysian jet had extensive training

By David Willman
Los Angeles Times
July 19, 2014

Whoever fired the surface-to-air missile that brought down a passenger jet over eastern Ukraine would have needed extensive training to execute the mission, according to military experts.

Taking down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, traveling about 600 mph at an altitude of 33,000 feet, required vastly more expertise than, say, firing a shoulder-braced rocket-propelled grenade at a slow-moving helicopter. A crew of at least four would have been needed to accurately fire the truck-mounted Russian-made SA-11 missile, also known as a Buk missile system.

“You’ve got to have people who are technically competent,” said retired Army Maj. Gen. Stephen V. Reeves, who served as an intelligence officer in Western Europe.

The SA-11 is a 1972-era weapon system, and is not as technologically advanced or easy to operate as more modern weaponry.

“This is a hard system to use, in today’s terms,” said retired Army Lt. Gen. Patrick J. O’Reilly, a former director of the U.S. Missile Defense Agency, who estimated that each of the SA-11 crew members would have needed at least six months of training.

“You don’t just take some folks off the street, and 30 days later they’re trained,” he said.

The SA-11 system is designed to identify a target with radar before and throughout the flight of the missile. The radar data is transmitted continuously to the missile, guiding it toward the target.

However, O’Reilly said that while the SA-11 can find and follow targets at altitudes up to 70,000 feet, the system is unable to distinguish between a military transport plane and a large passenger aircraft.

Given the Malaysian jetliner’s altitude and cruising speed, O’Reilly said, the SA-11 probably was fired within 25 miles of the crash site.

Whoever did this wasn’t someone that had a little bit of training…. These people were trained on it for a long time. – Retired Army Lt. Gen. Patrick J. O’Reilly

Those who fired at the Malaysian jetliner Thursday “knew they were shooting a large aircraft,” O’Reilly said. “It’s such an old technology, it could very conceivably be they thought they were shooting down a military cargo plane or a large tanker. It is not unlikely they really thought that they were shooting down a military aircraft.”

The SA-11 missile is an explosive warhead armed with a “proximity fuse” that detonates within 110 yards of a target. This means, O’Reilly said, that Flight 17 was downed by the force of the blast, not by a direct collision with the missile.

“It’s not designed to hit the plane,” he said. “It’s designed to get close, and the proximity fuse automatically goes off.”

Debris from the wreckage, particularly chunks of the jetliner, probably will contain tell-tale fragments of the SA-11. However, the forensic work of verifying the type of weapon would still fall short of identifying who fired it because of the SA-11’s ubiquity in the region, both O’Reilly and Reeves said.

Senior U.S. officials have said the missile appears to have been fired from an area of eastern Ukraine held by Russia-backed separatists, some of whom were spotted with an SA-11 launcher shortly before the missile was fired.

O’Reilly and Reeves noted that both the Russian and Ukrainian armies possess SA-11s. They also said it was possible that the Russia-aligned militants possess them. The crash occurred in an area of eastern Ukraine held by the separatists.

“That’s the [missile] system that you pick to do the very thing that it did,” O’Reilly said. “So that there’s some deniability. Both the Ukrainians have it and the Russian army has it.”

It’s possible, Reeves said, that specialized Russian military personnel—”Spetsnaz”—were directly or indirectly involved with the crew that fired the missile.

“Whoever did this wasn’t someone that had a little bit of training and some Russian advisors told him how to do it. These people were trained on it — for a long time. The fact is, they shot one [missile] and they hit. They’re pretty proficient, O’Reilly said.

“If it wasn’t Russians or Russian advisors, it had to be former Russian air-defense personnel. Someone had to be formally trained in order to use it.’’

  1. #1 by TheWrathOfGrapes on Sunday, 20 July 2014 - 8:55 am

    The whole article is insinuating that the Russians did it. Heck, why don’t just come out and say it straight.

    BTW, the CIA is also very good at training rebels. Like in Afghanistan where they trained the Mujahideens and also Saddam Hussein’s people before the US turned against him.

  2. #2 by Jeffrey on Sunday, 20 July 2014 - 1:13 pm

    Problem is US/ Ukraine want to pin blame on Putin/Russia- ie they supply Buk/ SA-11 missiles to separatist novices, they are responsible. But weren’t Ukraine responsible when its air controllers said OK to MH17; that it could fly through its national airspace at 33,000 feet implying its safe to do so when they’re not in control over that portion of their country (Donetsk region) controlled by Separatists? Even if Putin supplied Buk/ SA-11 – even if the Separatist who shot the missile was identified, he’s going to say “sorry its accident , thought it was military craft. The US that presses this a terrorist act has to explain what happened whats the difference when its navy on 3rd July 1988 accidentally shot down by guided missiles Iran Air flight 655 from Tehran to Dubai mistaking it a fighter jet – without apology but with compensation US$61.8 million.

  3. #3 by Jeffrey on Sunday, 20 July 2014 - 1:27 pm

    If an aircraft is by convention/law part of the territory of the state the nationality of which it possesses, then following American version of blame, to deliberately shoot MH17 down (by separatist sponsored by Russia) is tantamount to shooting at Malaysia – at best a criminal/terrorist act and at worse an act of war! Are our fellas (in pursuit of “justice”) pursue against Putin/Russia that have cosy defence contract relationship with it – purchase of 18 SU-30MKMs jets, and according to Wong Chun Wai in Star today, our PM immediately called Putin (after getting a call from UN’s Ban Ki Moon) over downing of MH17.

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