The missile strike on the downed Malaysia Airlines jet could have left telltale puncture marks across most of the Boeing Co. 777’s fuselage and wing as a result of the kind of weapon deployed, defense experts said.
A high-explosive fragmentation warhead of the kind thought to have been fired at Flight MH17 is designed to detonate short of the target, maximizing the missile’s destructive power by flinging thousands of pieces of shrapnel across a wide area, said Doug Richardson, missiles and rockets editor at IHS Jane’s.
“For an engagement from the side, missile from below, the fragments would spread across the fuselage in a beam roughly running along the body,” the defense publications group said.
While corpses from the crash are finally being sent for examination and the jet’s flight recorders are being released to Malaysian officials, television images have shown heavy machinery shifting burnt structures. A wide scatter pattern from missile fragments would help investigators pin down the cause of the crash even if only a limited amount of debris survives.
Different engagement angles between the missile and plane would produce identifiable patterns of damage, according to Jane’s, with a perpendicular attack producing a spread across almost the entire aircraft body, whereas a head-on engagement would result in a near-vertical swathe of shrapnel.
A level warhead burst would also cause many distinctive long streaks across the wing’s skin, Jane’s said.
Missiles fired from a mobile Buk surface-to-air launcher system are equipped with a proximity fuse that emits radio waves which are reflected back by the target, detonating the warhead at the point when it is closest to its quarry. Coverage extends up to 72,000 feet with a 32 kilometer (20 mile) range.
The firing battery for the Buk system, known as the SA-11 Gadfly under NATO naming protocols, comprises three vehicles -- a target-acquisition radar used to identify aerial objectives, a command post housing control systems and data displays, and a launcher armed with four radar-guided missiles.
While all three vehicles usually operate together, the Buk launcher can also work alone, acquiring targets via a built-in radar normally used just for tracking.
The risk of hitting the wrong target is then increased because the launcher’s “identification friend or foe” system cannot tell if an unrecognized plane is actually a jetliner, according to Richardson, himself a former missile engineer.
The U.S. has indicated it believes that Russia supplied the missile that downed MH17, though Russian Ambassador to Malaysia Lyudmila Vorobyeva said at a news conference in Kuala Lumpur that it played no role and that Ukrainian separatists don’t have the required long-range anti-aircraft weapons.
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