NEWS

Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 FAQ: Surface-To-Air Missiles

07/19/2014 05:00 EDT | Updated 09/17/2014 05:59 EDT
A growing number of high-level authorities are saying that Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 was brought down by a surface-to-air missile.

Indeed, one of those claims was made by U.S. President Barack Obama on Friday. "What we have confidence in saying is that a surface-to-air missile was fired, and that's what brought the jet down."

Obama added, "It's important for us to make sure we don't get out ahead of the facts."

Here then are some facts about surface-to-air missiles, or SAMs.

What are the origins of SAMs?

SAMs were first deployed in the 1950s, in the U.S. and former Soviet Union.

The U.S. began to deploy Nike Ajax missiles in 1953, positioned to protect cities and military installations. The missiles were developed as part of Project Nike (the name for the Greek goddess of victory), which began in 1945.

The first Soviet SAM, the S-25 Berkut (golden eagle), was deployed in 1955, eventually in several rings around Moscow.

The early SAMs replaced anti-aircraft guns.

The Vietnam War was the first serious wartime use of SAMs, beginning in 1965. They were effective, especially in the early years. About 205 aircraft were shot down with SAMs during the war

How do SAMs work?

A target is identified, usually visually or by radar, the missile fired and, with the help of a guidance system, homes in on its target. If that target is not deploying any missile defence — and almost all civilian aircraft — the SAM is very likely to hit its target.

The missiles contain a warhead and a propulsion system.

They can be fired from a missile system or with a hand-held launcher for smaller, shorter-range missiles.

What guidance systems do SAMs use?

The guidance system may be on the missile or on the launch system using remote control.

The larger, longer-range SAMs usually rely on radar, although not exclusively, for guidance. In the most-common system, knownh as semi-active radar homing, a receiver in the missile picks up the reflections of the surface-based tracking radar and then homes in on that signal.

Smaller, shorter-range SAMs tend to use an onboard infrared guidance system to home in on targets.

Some newer systems use a laser instead of radar for guidance.

What are the types of SAMs?

SAMs are grouped according to their range, and, generally, the longer the range the larger the missile.

Short-range missiles, including MANPADS (man-portable anti-aircraft missiles) get deployed against aircraft on ground-attacks, including helicopters. They may be fired from someone's shoulder or from vehicle mounts.

Medium-range systems are usually vehicle-mounted and can be fired while the vehicle is moving.

The long-range missile systems may be fixed or semi-mobile.

From what distance can a SAM hit an airplane?

Russia’s 40N6 SAM has a range up to 400 km, although 250 km is a more common range for long-range SAMs.

Normal airliner cruising altitude, 10,000 m, would be beyond the reach of short-range SAMs but could be brought down by most medium-range SAMs.

MH17 was at 10,000 m when it vanished from radar.

What is the SA-11 Gadfly?

That is the NATO designation for the Russian 9K37 Buk medium-range SAM system. That is the system the U.S., Ukrainian officials and others say was used to shoot down Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17.

It uses semi-active radar homing and has been around since 1979. It's a mobile system consisting of two vehicles and can be ready to fire in five minutes.

Each launcher is armed with four SAMs.

The missiles travel at three times the speed of sound, are about 5.5 m in length and .4 m in diameter. They weigh about 700 kg, with a 70 kg warhead that has a 17 m lethal radius.

These missiles are usually used to defend against aircraft or cruise missiles. They can hit a target travelling up to 3,000 km/hr at altitudes from 30-14,000 m., or even 22,000 m according to some sources.

Each SAM has a range of three to 28 km.

Why is the SA-11 suspected to be the type of SAM that brought down MH17?

Both Russia and Ukraine have SA-11 or Buk systems, and there are also reports from Ukraine and rebel sources that pro-Russian rebels have acquired one or more SA-11s.

Ukraine has 60 SA-11 systems according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies' 2014 Annual Survey.

The SA-11 is definitely capable of shooting down an airliner at 10,000 m.

Its identification friend or foe system "would not give you a warning that you were tracking an airliner," according to Jane's Defence Weekly. It will only identify the particular military's own aircraft. 

Also on HuffPost

  • Karlijn Keijzer
    Indiana University
    Karlijn Keijzer was a 25-year-old doctoral student in the chemistry department at the Indiana University College of Arts and Sciences. “On behalf of the entire Indiana University community, I want to express my deepest sympathies to Karlijn’s family and friends over her tragic death,” Indiana University President Michael A. McRobbie said in a statement. “Karlijn was an outstanding student and a talented athlete, and her passing is a loss to the campus and the university. Our hearts also go out to the families of all the victims of this senseless act.”
  • John, Yuli, Arjuna and Sri Paulissen
    AP
    Widi Yuwono, the brother of Yuli Hastini, right, shows her sister's family portrait with her Dutch husband John Paulissen and their two children Arjuna and Sri who were on board of the crashed Malaysia Airlines flight 17, at his residence in Solo, Central Java, Indonesia, Friday, July 18, 2014. The Malaysian jetliner that went down in war-torn Ukraine did not make any distress call, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak said Friday, adding that its flight route had been declared safe by the global civil aviation body.
  • Wayan Sujana
    Christopher Furlong / Getty Images
    A photograph of Indonesian man Wayan Sujana of Bali, believed to be missing on Air Malaysia flight MH17, is fixed to the ticketing desk of Air Malaysia at Schiphol Airport on July 18, 2014 in Amsterdam, Netherlands. (Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)
  • Joep Lange
    Peter Lowie/AMC/AP
    In this October 2008 photo provided by AMC Amsterdam on Friday, July 18, 2014, former president of the International AIDS Society Joep Lange is seen. A large number of world-renowned AIDS researchers and activists heading to an international AIDS conference in Australia were on board a Malaysian jetliner that was shot down over Ukraine, officials said Friday, as news of their deaths sparked an outpouring of grief across the global scientific community. Among them was Joep Lange, a well-known researcher from the Netherlands . (Peter Lowie/AMC/AP)
  • Glenn Thomas
    WHO / AP
    An undated photo made available Friday, July 18, 2014, by the World Health Organization of Glenn Thomas, 49, a media officer at the WHO in Geneva, who died on board Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 which was shot down over the Ukraine Thursday as it traveled from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur. (AP Photo/WHO)
  • Hendry Se
    Family of Hendry Se/AFP/Getty Images
    This handout photograph released on July 18, 2014 by the family of Hendry Se, an Indonesian passenger on the crashed Malaysia Airlines flight MH17, shows Henrdy at her graduation. (Family of Hendry Se/AFP/Getty Images)
  • Quinn Schansman
    Facebook
    Dutch-American student Quinn Lucas Schansman was reportedly on his way to a family vacation in Malaysia.
  • Nick Norris
    Facebook
    Nick Norris from Perth, Australia, was on board with three of his grandchildren.
  • Ninik Yuriani
    Handout / AFP / Getty Images
  • Sister Philomene Tiernan
    Kincoppal-Rose Bay School
  • Mary Menke and Gerry Menke
    East Gippsland Business Awards
  • Frankie Davison and Liam Davison
    Toorak College
  • Susan Horder
    Facebook
  • Howard Horder
    Facebook
  • Jill Guard
  • Roger Guard
  • Liliane Derden
    Facebook
  • Elaine Teoh
    Facebook
    x
  • Emiel Mahler
    Facebook
  • Wan Amran Wan Husin
    Instagram
  • Mo, Otis and Evie Maslin
    Facebook
  • Liam Sweeney
    Facebook
  • Emma Bell
    Facebook
  • Shazana Salleh
    Facebook
  • Angeline Premila
    Facebook
  • Albert Rizk
    Facebook
  • Helene Sidelik
    Facebook
  • Pim de Kuijer
    Facebook
  • Martine de Schutter
    Facebook