With mounting evidence that MH17 was shot down by Ukrainian separatist rebels who believed that they were engaging a military aircraft, attention is focusing on the Russian-built Almaz-Antey Buk-M1 ground-based air defense system (Gbads) that destroyed the airliner.

The Buk-M1 (SA-11 Gadfly to NATO) can be used by minimally trained operators to deliver a lethal attack, without the safeguards built into other comparable Gbads. It is also one of the two Gbads—both of Soviet origin—that are most widely distributed in conflict zones with the potential for large-scale cross-border or civil violence.

At the same time, the fact that the first shootdown of a modern-technology airliner in 25 years is attributed to a medium-range Gbads rather than a man-portable air defense system (Manpads) points directly to the limitations of Manpads and the possibility that the threat from small missiles has been oversold by contractors marketing counter-Manpad systems for commercial use.

The feature that makes the Buk-series weapons uniquely dangerous is that they can launch and guide missiles without access to procedures and technologies that can discriminate among hostile, friendly and commercial traffic. That characteristic was designed into the system in the 1970s when Tikhomirov NIIP, now part of Almaz-Antey, developed it to replace the 2K12 Kub low-altitude missile system, known to NATO as the SA-6 Gainful. (The similar names are coincidental: “Kub” means cube and “Buk” means beech.)

Kub was exported to Egypt after the destruction of that nation’s air force in a low-level airstrike in 1967, and proved lethal in the 1973 Yom Kippur war. But it had a serious weakness: It could engage only one target at a time. Kub operated as a battery that included one radar vehicle and four launch vehicles, and it used semi-active radar homing guidance. The radar vehicle carried two antennas, a search radar and a continuous-wave tracker-illuminator, and the missile homed in on energy from the illuminator beam that was reflected from the target. Because there was only one illuminator per battery, the system could not start a second engagement until the previous missile had hit the target.

In the 1982 Lebanon war, the Israel Defense Force-Air Force (IDF-AF) launched a wave of decoys against Kubs and other systems. Once the Kub illuminators locked onto the decoys they were unable to respond to the IDF-AF fighters that appeared next, and were destroyed.

The designers of the replacement Buk system had anticipated this problem. In addition to a new radar vehicle—the Phazotron 9S18M, Snow Drift to NATO—they fitted each launch vehicle with its own X-band multi-mode radar, under a radome on the front of the rotating launch platform. The vehicle is defined as a transporter/erector/launcher and radar (Telar). Similar to a fighter radar, Telar radar (known to NATO as Fire Dome) has search, track and illuminator functions and can scan through a 120-deg. arc, independent of the movement of the platform.

The Fire Dome radar’s main job was to permit simultaneous engagement of more targets—one per Telar—under control of the battery’s 9S18M Snow Drift. But the Soviet military and the designers installed a set of backup modes that would permit the Telars to detect and attack targets autonomously, in the event that the Snow Drift was destroyed, or forced to shut down, by NATO’s rapidly improving anti-radar missiles.

The autonomous modes are intended for last-ditch use by the Telar operators, not the more highly trained crews in the battery-command vehicle. According to an experienced analyst of Russian-developed radar, the automatic radar modes display targets within range. The operator can then command the system to lock up the target, illuminate and shoot.

Critically, these backup modes also bypass two safety features built into the 9S18M Snow Drift radar: a full-function identification friend-or-foe (IFF) system and non-cooperative target recognition (NCTR) modes. The IFF system uses a separate interrogator located above the main radar antenna and most likely will have been upgraded to current civilian standards. 

The 9S18M introduced new NCTR processing technology, according to a 1998 interview with Buk designer Ardalion Rastov. NCTR techniques are closely held, but one of the most basic—jet engine modulation, or the analysis of beats and harmonics in the radar return that are caused by engine fan or compressor blades—should easily discriminate between a Boeing 777 with high-bypass turbofans, a turboprop transport or a Sukhoi Su-25 attack fighter.

There is no sign of an IFF interrogator on the Buk Telar’s Fire Dome radar or elsewhere on the vehicle. In normal operation, this would not be a limitation since the target’s identity would be verified (according to the prevailing rules of engagement) before target data were passed to the Telar. Other Gbads also leave identification to the main search radar and the command-and-control center; however, the launch units cannot engage and fire without central guidance. The Buk’s combination of lethality and lack of IFF/NCTR is unique.

The Buk-M1 has been superseded by the Buk-M2 and -M2E. These versions include new radars and missiles but feature the same architecture; it is not known whether the active, electronically scanned array radar used on the M2/M2E Telar incorporates NCTR.

Much of the in-service support for the Buk-M1 is now provided by Ukroboronservice, owned by the Ukraine government, under agreements with Russian arms export agency Rosoboronexport and Rostec. Given the possibility that Ukrainian technicians and conscripts familiar with the Buk-M1 may have joined the separatist movement, this means rebel forces would not necessarily need Russian technical assistance to operate the system.

Buk systems have been deployed in 14 nations, and are operational in other areas subject to internal conflict. In January 2013, Israel launched an airstrike that was apparently intended to destroy a number of Buk-M2E vehicles that were being transferred from Syria to Hezbollah forces in Lebanon. In all, Syria is reported to have possessed eight Buk-M2E batteries. Syria also operates as many as 40 S-125 (SA-3 Goa) batteries, which are reportedly being upgraded. These are also medium-range, mobile weapons, but the launch units do not have radar. The same goes for the nation’s aging Kub batteries.

Egypt has 50-plus batteries of S-125, some of which have been modernized, and has been reportedly negotiating orders for Buk-M2E systems. Yemen also has some S-125 systems. Most pre-2003 Iraqi and Libyan Gbads have been destroyed, analysts suggest.

The shootdown of MH17 is the fourth time that a large commercial aircraft has been destroyed by a missile in flight. A Korean Air Lines Boeing 747 (KAL 007) was shot down on Sept. 1, 1983, by a Soviet air force Sukhoi Su‑15 fighter over the Sea of Japan, and the U.S. Navy cruiser Vincennes shot down an Iran Air Airbus A300 over the Persian Gulf on July 3, 1988, using Standard missiles. In October 2001, a long-range S-200 missile fired during an exercise by the Ukrainian armed forces destroyed a Siberian Tupolev Tu-154 over the Black Sea.

On the other hand, not one modern airliner has been confirmed shot down by Manpads, despite the widespread use of such weapons and a long campaign by the defense industry to install defensive systems on commercial aircraft. After the unsuccessful Manpads attack on an Arkia Airlines Boeing 757 as it departed Mombasa, Kenya, on Nov. 28, 2002, Congress directed the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to research the feasibility of adding defensive systems to the U.S. airline fleet. Some warned that a Manpads shootdown of an airliner was only a matter of time. The Rand Corporation, in a 2005 paper, estimated that the loss of a commercial aircraft to Manpads would cost the U.S. alone $15 billion as passengers deserted the airlines, jobs were lost and the economy suffered.

The DHS program turned into a competition between Northrop Grumman’s Guardian and BAE Systems’s JetEye, both using laser-powered directional infrared countermeasures (Dircm) systems. The goal was to develop a system that could be installed for $1 million per aircraft and that would cost no more than $300 per flight to operate. However, a later program also evaluated ground-based systems to provide a protective bubble around airports: Raytheon’s Vigilant Eagle, using high-powered microwave technology, and Northrop Grumman’s chemical laser-based Hornet. The project did not proceed beyond the test phase because there was no agreement on who would pay for it.

In the 12 years since Mombasa, the world’s airlines have flown unprotected. Two large commercial aircraft have been struck by Manpads—an Afghan Airlines DC-10 in September 1984 and a DHL A300 in November 2003. Both attacks were in war zones (where the attackers were free to operate near the airport and most commercial flights had been suspended) and neither aircraft was shot down, although the DHL aircraft narrowly escaped, but sustained heavy damage and was written off.

There have been no confirmed Manpads attacks on a commercial aircraft in a decade. Some smaller and older aircraft were shot down earlier: All of these, including two Boeing 737-200s, a Boeing 727 and Tupolev designs, had engines (the most likely impact point) mounted directly to the wing or rear fuselage, where the warhead blast is closer to structure and other systems.

Some years ago, an engineer and survivability expert from the Navy’s China Lake, California, research center noted in an interview that there is “not much oomph” in a Manpads warhead, which typically weighs about 1.5 kg (3 lb.). The effects “are very sensitive to the distance from the exploding warhead to critical systems,” the engineer said. “Even if it’s feet away, all it may do is put fragment holes in the skin.”

An Aviation Week study of airliner shootdowns and attempts shows 14 Manpads attacks in the past 40 years, of which more than half occurred more than 20 years ago. (Some statistics on attacks and fatalities are inflated by the inclusion of military transport aircraft.)

However, counter-Manpad systems are widely used on military transports and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft, which routinely fly into combat zones, and on head-of-state aircraft that are high-value targets. The threatened surge in the Manpads threat following the Libyan revolution in 2011—when a rumored 20,000 systems went missing—has not resulted in more attacks on airliners.

The only active directional infrared countermeasures (Dircm) program for commercial aircraft is in Israel, where Elbit Systems has developed the C-Music (Multi-Spectral Infrared Countermeasures) system under government contract. Tests aboard an El Al Boeing 737-800 were completed in February, and the Israeli government is funding an operational program, with the first installations already complete. Wiring and structural provisions—known as the A-kit—will be installed on the entire fleet, and the pod will be installed on aircraft operating into high-threat zones. C-Music uses a fiber laser, which is less costly than the diode-pumped crystal lasers in most other systems. 



Known Airliner Shootdowns & Attempts 1970-present        
Date Target, Location Weapon Result Notes
Feb. 21, 1973 Libyan Arab Airlines 727,      
Sinai Peninsula Fighter gunfire Destroyed, 108 fatalities, 5 survived Intruded into Israel airspace  
20-Apr-78 Korean Air Lines 707, Murmansk, USSR Air-to-air missile Damaged, 2 fatalities,  
107 survived Mistaken for reconnaissance aircraft      
Sept. 3, 1978 Air Rhodesia Viscount, Karoi, Rhodesia Manpads Destroyed, 48 fatalities,  
8 survived        
Feb. 12, 1979 Air Rhodesia Viscount, Lake Kariba, Rhodesia Manpads Destroyed, 59 fatalities  
27-Jun-80 Aerolinee Itavia DC-9,      
near Ustica, Italy Air-to-air missile Destroyed, 81 fatalities Not confirmed, but possible accident  
Sept. 1, 1983 Korean Air Lines 747,      
Sea of Japan Air-to-air missile Destroyed, 269 fatalities    
Nov. 8, 1983 Angola Airlines 737, Lubango, Angola Manpads Destroyed, 130 fatalities Not confirmed, claimed by Unita
Feb. 9, 1984 Angola Airlines 737, Huambo, Angola Manpads Total loss, no fatalities Not confirmed, claimed by Unita
Sept. 21, 1984 Afghan Airlines DC-10, Kabul, Afghanistan Manpads Damaged, no fatalities Some sources attribute to AAA
Nov. 6, 1987 Air Malawi Skyvan, Ulongwe, Mozambique Manpads Destroyed, 10 fatalities  
3-Jul-88 Iran Air A300,      
Persian Gulf Surface-to-air missile Destroyed, 290 fatalities Shot down by USS Vincennes  
Sept. 21, 1993 Transair Tu-134,      
Sukhumi, Georgia Manpads Destroyed, 27 fatalities    
Sept. 22, 1993 Transair Tu-154,      
Sukhumi, Georgia Manpads Destroyed, 108 fatalities, 24 survived    
Oct. 10, 1998 Congo Airlines 727, Kindu, Congo Manpads Destroyed, 41 fatalities  
Oct. 4, 2001 Siberia Airlines Tu-154, Black Sea Surface-to-air missile Destroyed, 78 fatalities Accidental hit by Ukrainian S-200
Nov. 28, 2003 Arkia 757,      
Mombasa, Kenya Manpads Two shots missed    
Nov. 22, 2003 DHL A300, Baghdad Manpads Total loss, no fatalities  
17-Jul-14 Malaysia Airlines 777, Ukraine Surface-to-air missile Destroyed, 298 fatalities  
Source: AW&ST research