How Hard Is It to Shoot Down a Passenger Plane?

Answers to your questions about the news.
July 17 2014 4:10 PM

How Hard Is It to Shoot Down a Passenger Plane?

How rebels in Ukraine got a missile launcher.

MH17.
The site of a Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 plane crash is seen in the settlement of Grabovo in the Donetsk region, July 17, 2014. Wreaking this kind of havoc wouldn’t be hard if you had the right equipment.

Photo by Maxim Zmeyev/Reuters

Update, 6:30 p.m.: U.S. officials have confirmed that Malaysia Airline Flight 17 was shot down by a missile.

After the sad, still unexplained loss of Malaysia Airlines 370 in March, another luckless Malaysia Airlines flight crashed Thursday. It was presumably shot down by militants, while flying over the conflict-torn Donetsk region of Ukraine. Footage of smoking wreckage appeared on YouTube. All 295 passengers on board are thought to have been killed.

The flight, en route to Kuala Lumpur from Amsterdam, was flying at 33,000 feet when reportedly hit by a projectile from a Buk missile launcher on the ground. Passenger planes typically fly at this altitude, and a Boeing 777 would be traveling at about 0.84 Mach, or a bit more than 600 mph, according to Boeing. Wouldn’t such a plane be hard to shoot down? Just how hard is it to shoot down a plane flying at cruising altitude?

A Buk missile launcher is a mobile system designed by the Soviets in the 1970s, which has since been upgraded over several iterations. The latest model, the Buk-M3, will be standard issue for the Russian military beginning in 2016. Militants are more likely to have older models Buk-M1 or Buk-M2, which Russians, Ukrainians, and Belarusians inherited after the collapse of the Soviet Union. These can launch missiles about 70,000 feet in the air and have sophisticated tracking systems for locking on to targets. They are designed specifically to shoot down planes. Buk systems have also been exported to China, India, and Georgia.

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So for a person who’s trained, it “would not be hard to shoot down a plane of that size, going at that speed, from the ground,” says Steve Mastalerz, a weapons training specialist, and would certainly be “a deliberate act” using the system’s homing system. Commercial airlines, including Lufthansa, Virgin, and KLM, are all diverting their flights from eastern Ukraine.

Boer Deng is a Slate editorial assistant. Follow her on Twitter

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