As questions still abound over what brought down Malaysia Airlines' MH17 near Donetsk in eastern Ukraine, The Washington Post looks into several possibilities.
In a report titled "What would it take to shoot down MH17", the daily said an advance anti-air missile system would be required to shoot at a commercial aircraft flying at cruising altitude.
The paper said that the most common systems capable of such a feat would be man-portable air-defence systems, or MANPADS, but some experts had ruled out the use of such systems.
“First off, a MANPADS did not shoot down that airliner. A MANPADS original purpose is for low-flying aircraft with high-heat signatures, like helicopters,” the newspaper quoted a former Marine Special Operations member trained in air defence systems as saying.
The Washington Post said MANPADS had targetted commercial planes before but it was usually during takeoffs and landings, when the aircrafts are at their most vulnerable, in citing an example of a DHL transport liner that was hit by a MANPADS known as SA-14 in 2003 shortly after taking off from Baghdad International Airport.
“MANPADS don’t have the fuel to continue tracking a fast moving target at high altitude,” the daily further quoted the special operations member as saying.
A total of 298 people, including three infants, perished when a surface-to-air missile struck MH17 last night.
Those responsible for downing the jet have yet to be identified, with Russian and Ukrainian authorities blaming each other and separatists for the disaster.
The Washington Post said Russia and Ukraine had moved advanced air defence systems near their borders in the last few months, including the surface-to-air missile system called SA-17 Buk 2 or more popularly known as the “Grizzly”.
“Grizzly” can pinpoint aircrafts flying at altitudes of between 32 feet and 78,000 feet, which the daily said placed the doomed Boeing 777 within range.
The daily also noted the system guides its missiles via a radar array, which is different from MANPADS which most of the time, uses heat signatures for guidance.
The Boeing 777 has a wingspan of 199 feet, The Washington Post said, while a Ukrainian transport craft, an AN-26 which was shot down earlier this week by pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine, has a wingspan of 99 feet.
“To a radar operator, the two aircraft might look similar,” the newspaper quoted Navy Pilot Lt James Swiggart as saying.
Swiggart, who had flown early-warning aircraft, further explained that advanced surface-to-air systems like the SA-17 are “transponder aware”, which means it could detect if they are targeting a civilian jet.
The Washington Post pointed out commercial airlines give out a four-digit transponder, known as an IFF code, that designates it as civilian.
The SA-17 would detect the code if its weapon systems attempted to “lock on” MH17.
“It’s easy to tell the difference between a civilian aircraft or not, if you’re a skilled radar operator. There’s really no excuse to shoot down an airliner unless you were trying to,” it further quoted Swiggart as saying.
The pilot further added airlines fly along well-established routes at regulated speeds and unlike military aircrafts, commercial planes do not have any advanced warning system to let them know they are being targetted by anti-aircraft missiles.
“They would have had no idea,” the daily further quoted Swiggart as saying. – July 18, 2014.