How Hard Is It to Shoot Down a Plane?

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Ukrainian government officials say Russian-backed rebel forces shot down a Malaysian Airlines flight with 295 passengers and crew over the embattled border region on its way from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur. The commercial flight was cruising at 33,000 feet, making it too high for a shoulder-launched missile and more likely that it was targeted by a radar-guided missile defense system, according to military experts.

“It does seem depressingly likely,” said Mark Galeotti, a professor of global affairs at New York University currently studying Russian security issues in Moscow. “We know the rebels have the Buk missile system.  We know they have shot down planes in the past. They may have believed it was a legitimate target.”

The cockpit voice recorder and flight data recorder provide crucial clues for airline detectives investigating the cause of a plane crash.
© HYUNGWON KANG/Reuters/Corbis

Anton Geraschenko, an adviser at the Ukraine Interior Ministry, said on his Facebook page that the airplane had been hit by a Buk antiaircraft system. He also wrote that people in eastern Ukraine who support the central government had reported seeing a Buk system in the area, according to The New York Times.

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The aircraft came down about 10 miles from the Russian border. Among the dead are at least 23 Americans, according to news reports quoting Ukrainian government officials.

The Buk is a Russian-built air defense system that uses its own radar to acquire up to 24 targets at a time, and launch up to eight missiles. These missiles are built to defend against incoming aircraft, drones, missiles or guided munitions, according to Paul Schwartz, senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington and an expert in the Russian military.

“These missiles are fast, very maneuverable, and are really designed to strike highly maneuverable aircraft,” Schwartz said. “Taking out a jetliner wouldn’t have been a major problem for it.”

Even though the Malaysian Airlines flight was carrying a transponder that identified it as a civilian aircraft, Schwarz and others say the Buk missile defense system takes proper training in order to distinguish between friend and foe.