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Weapon Eyed in Malaysia Jet Crash Can't Tell Planes Apart

The Buk missile system believed to have been used in the downing of a commercial jet wasn't designed to be used in areas with civilian traffic

The surface-to-air missile system thought to have been used to shoot down a Malaysia Airlines jet over Ukraine Thursday was not designed to be used in an area where commercial flights operate, and that could have contributed to the apparently mistaken attack, according to a weapons expert.

The powerful Cold War-era Buk missile system was built to protect Soviet army units from attacking aircraft during wartime. Unlike fixed-weapons used for national air defense, a Buk system in the field being used by separatist rebels likely wouldn’t have information from air-traffic control centers, said Steve Zaloga, a senior analyst for the Teal Group Corp. in Virginia.

“The Buk system is not designed for peacetime use where it interacts with air traffic control,” Zaloga said. “They would have seen a radar blip at 33,000 feet, but that’s all they would have seen.”

Officials have not confirmed what weapon was used to take down the jet, killing all 298 aboard, or who fired it. An analysis by IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly concluded the Buk system is the only mobile weapon system used in Ukraine capable of reaching that altitude to strike the jet. By itself, the launcher’s radar can only distinguish between friend and unknown, not between military and civilian craft.

Zaloga said that if the attack was a mistake, it shows that crews had enough training to fire the weapon — but not enough to realize that a radar signature at an altitude used by commercial jets may not be a military target.

“A trained air-defense crew would understand if you’ve got something flying at 33,000 feet in a straight line, it is probably not a tactical military aircraft,” he said. “The sad thing is the combination of high technology mixed with incompetence, that’s lethal. And that’s what happened here.”