Among all the images published on media outlets from all around the world, the one first published by Financial Times over the past weekend, struck our attention.
The piece of wreckage, reportedly measuring 1 mt sq, has a couple of distinctive features that may help the identification: the colored stripes of the Malaysia Airlines livery and the bolts of the cockpit side windshield.
Based on these details, with the help of our contributor Giuliano Ranieri, we identified (and obviously we were not the only ones) the piece as a chunk of front fuselage located next to the cockpit (slightly below it), on the left hand side of the plane.
The piece has several burn marks, a large central hole and several smaller punture marks surrouding it. The edges of the small holes seem to be bent outwards, evidence of something that got out of the skin from the inside of the plane.
This is a sign the missile, most probably fired by an SA-11 system according to almost all reports to date, equipped with a proximity fuse, detonated on the right side of the aircraft not too far from the nose, scattering several fragments of shrapnel so fast that they traversed the plane from side to side: they entered through the right side of the airframe and got out from the left one.
Furthermore, considering the amount of puncture marks concentrated at the base of the cockpit window’s we can assume both pilots were hit by high speed, hot shrapnels that most probably did not give them time to realize what was going on.
Image credit: FT.com/graphic by Giuliano Ranieri
New, higher resolution images of the same part of wreckage have emerged. These images seem to point in a different direction.
Indeed, the holes have edges that appear to be inward. This could be coherent with a missile which did not blast on the aircraft’s right hand side, but on the left one, between the nose and the leading edge of the left wing. Still, the type of puncture marks and the concentration are suitable with a SARH.
Interestingly, the Russian MoD said the Su-25 (mistakenly defined as a “fighter jet” whereas it is an attack plane) operated well above its ceiling of 23,000 feet. Even more interesting the Wiki page of the Su-25 was edited (by a Russian IP address) to update its specifications…
Iranian defense expert Babak Taghvaee believes the mistake was caused by the fact the Malaysian Boeing 777 was escorted over eastern Ukraine. Taghvaee is always very well informed and an extremely reliable source. Therefore, after he provided some details about this activity of the Ukrainian Air Force on ACIG forum thread about the war in Ukraine, we contacted him for some more insight.
Here’s what he wrote to us.
“When the Crimea crisis began, the Ukrainian Air Force air command center quickly forward deployed six Su-27s to the Kulbakino AB. Since beginning of the crisis and the Russia intervention, the 831st TAB has the important task to provide air defense as well as security of whole country. Six fully armed Flankers have always been in the sky especially when the other Ukrainian Air Force airplanes such as transporters and attackers like Fulcrums and Rooks were in the East of Ukraine,” explains Taghvaee.
“But when the Su-25M1 was shot down by the Russia Air Force 6969th AB’s MiG-29 on Jul. 16, the situation and condition became more critical than previous days and more Su-27 sorties were conducted to confront Russian MiG-29s. I believe those two Su-27s were not in sky just for standard practice in that day [Jul. 17], I believe they were involved in HAVCAP (High Asset Value Combat Air Patrol) mission sortie in that day.”
In other words: since the Russian interceptors had downed a Su-25 on the previous days, the Ukrainian escorted all military and civil flights over eastern Ukraine on Jul. 17. Including MH17.
“During the UEFA 2012, the 831st TAB and its Flankers had same role, during those competitions they had duty to escort the airliners in FL330 and other routes in case emergency. They played same role during the Sochi Winter Olympics in Russia. They were airborne and they even escorted a hijacked airplane. They were also ready to provide security of all passenger airplanes over Ukraine. They are now following same procedure and they could protect all of the airplanes over Ukraine in-front of Russians since Jul 16.”
Provided the Su-27s were really escorting or (more likely) watching from their CAP station many, if not all, civil flights over Eastern Ukraine for the first time ever on Jul. 17, in the wake of the downing of the Su-25, the operators inside the Buk may have mistaken the Boeing 777 shadowed by/near two Flankers for a high-value plane of the Ukrainian Air Force. On their radar screens, the sight of a large plane with two accompanying (or circling in CAP not too far away) fighter jets was completely new and may only mean the Ukrainians were escorting an important plane. And that would be the reason why they downed it without spending too much time analysing its transponder code and altitude.
They give an idea of what it is like to be sitting behind the radar screen of the anti-aircraft sytem.
The Buk, known as SA-11 or SA-17 depending on the variant, is a self-propelled medium range, medium altitude anti-aircraft system with a maximum range of 13NM and a ceiling of 39,400 feet. It uses a semi-active radar homing guidance system: the missile listens to the signal emitted by the ground radar and reflected from the target and points itself towards it.
The difficult part of the engagement is obviously to distinguish between friendly and foe.
Basically, when sitting behind an old-fashioned radar screen, the system does not help too much to distinguish a military cargo plane from a Boeing 777 enroute at FL330 as both aircraft would appear to the operators as blips.
But, Soviet-era air defense systems as the Buk are equipped with IFF (Identify Friend or Foe) systems meaning that they are able to detect if the system is targeting a civilian plane through its transponder code. Therefore, provided the operators are trained enough, they’ll be able to distinguish between a Ukrainian transport plane and a large airliner. If not, they will simply shoot.
Anyway, as suggested by a reader of this blog (“Phuzz”), while it doesn’t include the Buk (SA-11), SAMSimulator will give you a pretty realistic view of what the operator of such a system would see.