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.
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.
In addiction to be the first of the so called “Century Series” fighters and the first U.S. Air Force plane able to reach supersonic speed in level flight, the North American F-100 Super Sabre was also the first of the Wild Weasel aircraft.
The first idea relied on the traditional methods of photo and electronic reconnaissance (after the SAM site was located, aircraft on alert would be launched to destroy it). But such an approach was neither timely nor effective since many sites were mobile.
Therefore, a small number of aircraft were equipped with electronic devices to locate and mark the SAM sites in real-time for strike aircraft. This method required those aircraft to be fitted with a Radar Homing and Warning (RHAW) device allowing them to know when they were being targeted. The second step was to load these aircraft with missiles, like the AGM-45 Shrike, that could be fired at the radar. The last step was providing more effective jamming to protect themselves.
Due to its availability and performance, the two seat version of the Super Sabre, the F-100F, was chosen as the pathfinder aircraft: these aircraft had the task to locate and mark the SAM sites. Their RHAW was fitted with the IR-133 Panoramic Scan Receiver made by Applied Technologies Inc. (the so called ATI equipment), which provided a 360 degree scan on a 3-inch Cathode Ray Tube cockpit display to provide bearing to the signal: moreover it differentiated the various frequency bands and pulse rates to identify the several types of radar signals received, such as surveillance, missile tracking and Anti Aircraft Artillery (AAA) radar.
The aim of these kind of missions were explained to the aircrews during several briefings and it was in one of these meetings that an F-100F Electronics Warfare Officer (EWO), the F-100’s back seater, said: “You want me to ride in the back of a two seat fighter with a teenage killer in the front seat? You Gotta Be Shitting Me!” and from that briefing is believed to come the original Wild Weasel slogan “YGBSM” as explained in Ted Spitzmiller’s book Century Series The USAF Quest for air supremacy 1950-1960 .
After the visual identification of the target, the Pathfinder had to mark it, by means of 2.75 inch air to ground rockets fired from LAU-3 launchers, for the F-105 Thundechiefs that followed the F-100 with the task to destroy the SAM site.
Often, the SA-2 was launched against the F-100F: to avoid the missile, the Super Sabre aircrew relied on the Launch Warning Receiver (LWR-300) which, with a yellow light in the cockpit, alerted the crew of the imminent launch and with a red light signaled that the missile launch had occurred. A former pathfinder pilot, Colonel Edward Rock in the book First In, Last Out explained that he never noticed the color of the light: “If a SAM was launched, then the azimuth strobe associated with the threat was supposed to blink at 3 cycles per second. I can say that I probably had more than 100 missiles launched at my aircraft and never, not even once, saw the strobe blinking. Probably busy with more important things like saving my life.”
The first Wild Weasel F-100Fs arrived at Korat Royal Thai Air Force Base in November 1965. They conducted their first successful mission on Dec. 22 1965, as recalled by another Super Sabre pilot, Lieutenant Colonel Allen Lamb who gave his account to Ted Spitzmiller: “We didn’t just mark the target…we went in first with rockets and came back around with cannons even before some of the Thuds (as it was called the F-105 Thunderchief) had started on a first run. The F-100F was an excellent hunter-killer in that it was very agile. I was very fond of it, and of my ability to fly it.”
The F-100F flew these missions until its replacement with the F-105F, which took place in July 1966. However the “Hun” (as the Super Sabre was dubbed by its aircrews) was the first Wild Weasel aircraft and the first fighter to fly in the risky environment of the anti SAM missions, as remembered by Rock: “Due to the limited number of Wild Weasel aircraft we were considered a high value limited asset…we normally flew only the most dangerous missions and in an area where the threat was the very highest.”