Ellie Zolfagharifard and Jonathan O’Callaghan - With deadly precision, a Soviet-built BUK missile launcher Thursday brought down Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 carrying 295 passengers.
The surface-to-air missile hit the Boeing 777 with such force that residents in the area claim to have seen bodies falling from the sky ‘like rags’.
While it has not been confirmed who is responsible, details are now emerging of exactly how this lethal weapon was able to hunt down and destroy the passenger aircraft. The BUK missile system, also known as the SA-11 Gadfly, was created by the Soviet Union in 1979 to engage aircraft, cruise missiles and drones. BUK - which means ‘beech tree’ in Russian - includes four missiles on a turntable mounted on a tracked vehicle. A separate tracked vehicle carries early radars to guide the missiles.
Capable of carrying 154lbs (70kg) of highly-explosive warheads, BUK can send missiles up to an altitude of 75,000ft (23,000 metres). It takes just five minutes to warm up, 12 minutes to reload and 8-12 seconds to reach its target. Once there, it has a kill probability of 90 to 95 per cent.
Thursday’s missile is likely to have detonated within 65 feet (20 metres) of MH17, causing critical damage to the engines and control system of the aircraft.
The explosion would have ignited the fuel onboard the aircraft, causing destruction of the wing and fuselage.
‘Inside the missile is a variety of different warheads,’ a senior defence source told MailOnline. ‘These can be fragmentation or incendiary, depending on the target you are flying at. ‘They can cut an aircraft in half, set it on fire or provide large pieces of shrapnel that shred it apart.’
The missile - thought to be the Mach 3 semi-active homing 9M28M - was launched from the back of what is essentially a truck and has a range of 1.8 to 12.4 miles (3 to 20km).
A 13.8-inch (35cm) ‘seeker’ on the missile would have received information on the trajectory of the passenger aircraft from a radar station on a separate vehicle.
A typical battery to launch the missile is made up of command vehicle housing computers and displays.
The system used to determine whether a target is a friend or foe would not warn an operator that the target was an airliner - only that it was not a friend.
‘Aircraft don’t fly along doing nothing, they talk to people, they communicate via radio, they transmit signals,’ the defence source said. ‘If you are linked in to a national or standing air traffic system you’ll know what aircraft are flying around you.
‘If this was what people are saying it is, then it wasn’t linked into that system or they just ignored all of that information available.
‘Once the radar on the system has found an aircraft it guides the missile to it. Why did it not know it was a civilian airliner? It sounds like someone has made a mistake.’ The source confirmed that firing the missile was ‘as simple as pressing a button.’
‘The height and direction is computed within the command system to work out a collision point,’ he said.
Older models of the missile fly at 2,790ft (850 metres) per second; newer models at 4,035ft (1,230 metres) per second.
At that speed, the missile would have impacted the plane between 8 and 12 seconds after it was launched, depending on the model.
The system has remained widely in use throughout the former Soviet states, including Ukraine.
As well as the BUK, Nick de Larrinaga, an analyst at IHS Jane’s Defence, said the commercial aircraft would also be in the range of the Russian-made S-300.
Reports suggest the BUK used to shoot to have either been supplied by Russia or seized by pro-Russian rebel forces from a captured Ukrainian set.
Until then it was assumed the only surface-to-air missiles in rebel hands were shoulder-held launchers with a maximum engagement range of 10,000 feet.
They are capable of taking down aircraft the size of a Boeing 777 flying at a cruising altitude of 33,000 feet, meaning the intensity of the impact is likely to have blown the plane apart in the sky.
Witnesses says wreckage and body parts of the passengers and crew are scattered over an area of around nine miles, reinforcing the idea that the plane broke up mid-air.
In a statement Donetsk separatist leader Andrei Purgin said that he was certain that Ukrainian troops had shot it down but gave no explanation for that statement.
Purgin said he was not aware of whether rebel forces owned BUK missile launchers, but even if they did, there had no fighters capable of operating it.
The Ukrainian authorities have laid the blame for the attack on the rebels by denying any responsibility for the missile launch. Flight MH17, which was carrying 280 passengers and 15 crew, was flying between Amsterdam and Kuala Lumpur after taking off at lunchtime Thursday.
Television pictures from the scene showed a pall of smoke billowing into the sky near Donetsk, apparently from the stricken aircraft.
Earlier, pro-Russia rebels claimed responsibility for surface-to-air missile on two Ukrainian Sukhoi-25 jets Thursday.
The Ukrainian Defence Ministry said the second jet was hit by a portable surface-to-air missile - not a BUK - adding that the pilot was unscathed and managed to land his plane safely.
Pro-Russian separatists have since added that they have no such weapon and only have shoulder-launched heat-seeking missiles fired from a MANPAD (man-portable air defence system).
These can only reach up to 4000 metres. However, separatists had previously boasted of a Buk capture on Twitter.
Justin Bronk, with the Royal United Services Institute, believes that if a BUK SA-11 system was used, he is ‘almost certain’ it was supplied by Russia.
‘My personal hunch is that given the military setbacks that the separatists have suffered of late, and the Ukrainian military’s increasingly confident use of airpower, Russian authorities decided to send a few SA-11 systems across into the Donetsk area,’ he said. ‘However, I also highly suspect that the separatists did not intend to shoot down an airliner, but probably thought they were targeting a Ukrainian transport at high altitude.’ –Daily Mail