Make no mistake about it, Russian President Vladimir Putin bears responsibility for last week’s downing of Malaysia Air fight 17 that killed all 298 on board.
This tragedy also shows the need to equip civilian airliners with countermeasures to defend them against missile attacks.
The missile that brought down this jet from an altitude of 33,000 feet was a sophisticated ground-to-air missile, probably a Soviet-era SA-11 system. Unlike MANPADS, like the Stinger missiles which the Afghan Mujahidin used to oust the Soviets from Afghanistan in the 1980s, this missile was radar-guided and not a heat seeker.
The missile was a heavy weapon fired from tracked launchers. Firing such a missile required training and a radar operator to target the plane. Secretary of State Kerry yesterday accused Russia of providing Ukrainian separatists with training on how to operate these missiles.
The Ukrainian government over the weekend issued photographs and a video of what it claimed were three SA-11 launchers driving back to Russia from eastern Ukraine. According to Ukrainian officials, these images show one of the launchers was missing a missile.
President Putin obviously must be held accountable for his craven support of the pro-Russian separatists who committed this terrorist attack. Unless Putin ends his support for the separatists and pressures them to agree to a cease-fire and peace talks, the violence in Ukraine will continue.
The destruction of Malaysia Air flight 17 also highlights the growing threat of terrorists and rogue states acquiring surface-to-air missiles due to unrest in Ukraine, Iraq, Syria and Libya. At a minimum, consideration should be given to routing all civilian airliners away from certain conflict areas.
The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) had banned U.S. airlines from flying over Crimea before last week’s air disaster and expanded this ban to eastern Ukraine last week. The FAA currently prohibits overflights by U.S. civilian airliners in the airspace of Libya, North Korea, and parts of Chad and Ethiopia.
The FAA has also banned or issued advisories for flights at lower altitudes over several other countries. It has issued advisories but has not banned U.S. airliners from flying over Syria, Yemen and Iran.
The FAA permits overflights of Iraq over 20,000 feet.
The United States and other countries need to expand these flight bans to cover more countries and higher altitudes.
It also is time to start providing civilian airliners with countermeasures to protect them from missile attacks. This is a debate that has been raging since 2002 when two Russian-made Strela-2 MANPADs narrowly missed hitting an Israeli airliner taking off from Mombassa, Kenya.
In response to this attack, Israeli airliners began using missile countermeasures.
Israeli airliners have been using a system to defend against heat-seeking missiles. However, the Israeli government recently approved an aircraft countermeasure system called “Sky Shield” which jams the radar of radar-seeking missiles.
This would initially be expensive — about $1 million per plane. Despite news of Israel’s Sky Shield program, there is a debate over whether it is technically feasible to produce countermeasures to reliably protect large airliners from radar-guided missiles like the SA-11.
However, existing countermeasures technology would defend planes against the most likely threat — heat-seeking MANPADS — while the technology to defend against other types of missiles is perfected.
I believe this would be a small price to save lives from missile attacks.
Fred Fleitz served for 25 years with the CIA, the State Department, and the House Intelligence Committee staff. He is currently Chief Analyst with LIGNET.com, Newsmax Media’s global intelligence and forecasting service.
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