LONDON/WASHINGTON – Photographs of debris from the downed Malaysian jet show what seem to be telltale holes left by a missile strike on the Boeing Co. 777, defense experts said.
One image of a heavily perforated piece of fuselage that appears to come from the plane’s cockpit suggests damage from a ground-fired warhead, analysts at research group IHS Jane’s said Tuesday.
“The punctures seen in the photograph are relatively uniform in size,” said Reed Foster, manager of military capabilities at IHS Jane’s. ” This would potentially be consistent with a fragmentation-type warhead employed upon a number of modern and legacy surface-to-air missile systems.”
High-explosive fragmentation missiles of the kind thought to have been fired at Flight MH17 are designed to detonate short of the target, maximizing the weapon’s destructive power by flinging thousands of pieces of shrapnel across a wide area, said Doug Richardson, missiles and rockets editor at Jane’s.
The key photo seems to show part of the cockpit “peppered with fragments,” the defense publications group said. “It also shows what could be explosive residue and carbon sooting, aluminum oxide, or a combination of both all over it.”
While corpses from the crash are finally being sent for examination and the jet’s flight recorders are being released to investigators, television images have shown heavy machinery shifting burned structures. A wide scatter pattern from missile fragments would help investigators pin down the cause of the crash even if only a limited amount of debris survives.
Different engagement angles between the missile and plane would produce identifiable patterns of damage, according to Jane’s, with a perpendicular attack producing a spread across almost the entire aircraft body, whereas a head-on engagement would result in a near-vertical swath of shrapnel.
A level warhead burst would also cause many distinctive long streaks across the wing’s skin, IHS Jane’s said.
“For an engagement from the side, missile from below, the fragments would spread across the fuselage in a beam roughly running along the body,” it said.
Missiles fired from a mobile Buk surface-to-air launcher system are equipped with a proximity fuse emitting radio waves that are reflected back by the target, detonating the warhead at the point when it is closest to its quarry. Coverage extends up to 72,000 feet with a range of 32 km (20 miles).
The firing battery for the Buk system, known as the SA-11 Gadfly under NATO naming protocols, comprises three vehicles — a target-acquisition radar used to identify aerial objectives, a command post housing control systems and data displays, and a launcher armed with four radar-guided missiles.
While all three vehicles usually operate together, the Buk launcher can also work alone, acquiring targets via a built-in radar normally used just for tracking.
The risk of hitting the wrong target is then increased because the launcher’s “identification friend or foe” system cannot tell if an unrecognized plane is actually a jetliner, according to Richardson, himself a former missile engineer.
There have been examples of civil aircraft surviving air- to-air missile engagements, but not surface-to-air hits, Foster said separately, most likely because of the higher explosive yield involved and greater mass of fragmentary material.
U.S. technical intelligence and overhead satellite images that haven’t been made public document the likelihood that a surface-to-air missile fired from rebel-held territory in eastern Ukraine shot down the airliner, American intelligence officials said Tuesday.
One of the officials described the theory that a Russian-made SA-11 missile hit the airliner as solid, and said it was done under conditions that Russia helped create. All three officials, who discussed intelligence matters today on condition of anonymity, stopped short of claiming Russia’s direct involvement —though none ruled it out.
While providing the most complete U.S. briefing so far on evidence in the disaster, the intelligence officials stopped short of saying they know with certainty who fired the missile and didn’t release classified information to document their case.
The U.S. intelligence officials said they are confident that they detected the missile launch in eastern Ukraine at the time of the downing in an area controlled by the Russia-backed separatists.
The U.S. doesn’t think the missile could have come from Ukraine’s military because it had no missiles within range of the crash site at the time, the officials said. The Ukrainian military also had no motive for shooting down the airliner because it was fighting a ground war against rebels who presented no threat from the air, the officials said.
An attack by a Ukrainian Su-25 plane against the commercial airliner — a possibility suggested by Russian officials — isn’t plausible because the damage shown in photos on the ground suggest a surface-to-air missile and not the damage associated from a short-range missile carried on an Su-25 plane, they said.