How spies cracked the Malaysia Airlines MH17 missile mystery (Wired UK)

Artist conception of the Defense Support Program satellite

Northrop Grumman Corporation

When the only video evidence of a plane crash is shot after the
smoke is filling the sky, how do you go about piecing the tragedy
together, let alone determining it was brought down by a missile
and what could have fired it?

The investigation into the crash of Malaysia Airlines flight
MH17 began long before salvage teams recovered the first black box
recorder in the conflict-ridden region of East Ukraine. And with
reports emerging from news agency Interfax that Russian separatists
plan to hand the recorder over to the Russian interior, the
impartiality of information when it is released to investigators is
already coming under question. But other, external methods have
already determined a great deal about the final moments of

The most important of which, coming only hours after the crash,
was the lofty claim by Ukrainian and US intelligence officials that
the plane was shot down by a surface-to-air missile (SAM). Who
fired the missile is sure to be a matter of great political
importance over the coming days and weeks, with the prospect of
international intervention looming in an already tense situation.
To make such a claim before the dust had even settled would require
quite the metaphorical ace up the sleeve, but in America’s case the
Cold War has armed them with plenty of cards.

The US Air Force’s Defense Support Program (DSP) operates a web
of satellites positioned around the Earth that act as an early
warning system for weapons launches, including intercontinental
ballistic missiles and spacecraft. Using infrared cameras, they are
capable of detecting even smaller heat signatures — such as launch
blasts and booster plumes — proving their usefulness in the first
Iraq invasion, detecting the launches of Scud missiles and
providing evacuation warnings to civilian and military targets
alike. These satellites form part of the larger field of
Measurements and Signals Intelligence service (MASINT) operated by
many national military and spy agencies, including the US
Department of Defence.

Detecting the launch of a missile is as simple as watching for a
white spot on an aerial shot, then tracking the missile’s
trajectory back to its launchpad. This, in theory, would make it
easy to discover the weapon used. However, infra-red sensors are
not the same as the high-resolution cameras that provide us with a
detailed view of our own home on Google Earth, and without
additional surveillance satellites trained on the area at the right
time, that information would be lost. That is, without some lateral
thinking, a practice the intelligence industry excels in.

Self-propelled “Buk-M2” surface-to-air missile system on a military exhibition at the Kapustin Yar missile range, Znamensk, Russia

Leonidl/Wiki CC BY 3.0

The cruising altitude of MH17 was last recorded at 33,000ft
(10,000m). Most man-portable air defence (or MANPAD) systems have
an engagement range of around 20,000ft (6,000m), ruling out a
small, one-man launch and a whole litany of “dumbfire” rockets.
Alternatives are narrowed down to smarter, radar-guided missiles or
an air-to-air engagement. Since flight radar picked up no combat
jets in the area, the only remaining theory is a
medium-to-long-range SAM with radar guidance. This allows MASINT
analysts to narrow their searches based on how these systems

Before a missile is launched, a strong radar beacon would be
used to acquire the target. After a “lock on”, the payload is sent
on a rough trajectory to cross the path of the target. But during
flight, a radar on the missile itself would need to begin
transmitting in order to reacquire the target and adjust flight
course. These “pulses” can be specific to certain models of
missile, and certain missiles are specific to launch vehicles. By
detecting the radar signature of the missile, MASINT can compare it
to known frequencies, as well as other variables — such as speed
of the missile — and identify the weapon.

In the case of MH17, this appears to have been a Soviet-made
BUK-M2. The BUK launches missiles that travel at speeds of up to 3
mach (1,000 metres per second), easily capable of catching a
commercial passenger jet travelling at 800 kilometres per hour. The
BUK is used extensively on both sides of the border, and were
responsible for the downing of 4 aircraft during the 2008 conflict
in South Ossetia, Georgia. The vehicles involved in that incident
were allegedly bought from Ukraine, who have their own units,
however with the rebel appropriation of many of Ukraine’s military
vehicles over the past few months, it is unclear if any separatist
groups have obtained one themselves.

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