LONDON – A Russian-made surface-to-air missile is the most likely cause of the suspected downing of a Malaysian airliner over Ukraine, analysts said Friday, as claims and counter-claims swirled over who launched the weapon.
The truck-mounted “Buk” missile is capable of soaring to the height of a civilian airliner like Malaysian Airlines flight MH17, unlike lighter and more widely available shoulder-launched weapons, defense experts said.
Developed by the Soviet Union in the 1970s to shoot down aircraft, helicopters, cruise missiles and drones, it is still widely used by both the Ukrainian and Russian militaries.
The radar-guided missile can hit targets flying as high as 72,000 feet — more than twice the 33,000 feet MH17 was cruising at — and has a range of 32 km, said IHS Jane’s Missiles and Rockets editor Doug Richardson.
The missiles travel at three times the speed of sound and have an explosive warhead weighing 70 kg (154 pounds).
There are two variants: the Buk-M1 and Buk-M2, codenamed by NATO as the SA-11 Gadfly and the SA-17 Grizzly.
The U.S. envoy to the United Nations, Samantha Power, said Friday it was likely that an SA-11 was responsible.
The missile is produced by the Russian arms firm Almaz-Antey, recently targeted by U.S. sanctions, at a factory in Ulyanovsk.
Richardson said the missile system has a “friend or foe” identification system but cannot distinguish a commercial airliner from another unknown plane.
“It would not give you a warning that you were tracking an airliner,” he said.
Buk missiles are complicated to operate, requiring three lorry-sized vehicles — a command post, a radar vehicle, and a launcher with the missiles — which suggests that some expertise was needed to operate them, analysts said.