(Robert Beckhusen is a defense reporter and editor at Medium.com. The opinions expressed are his own.)
By Robert Beckhusen
July 30 No one has admitted responsibility for firing the sophisticated missile that brought down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, killing 298 people over Ukraine on July 17. But untrained rebels could probably have done it with a little practice. There are even instructions online, making it possible for nearly anyone who comes into possession of one of these systems - anywhere in the world - to use it.
Washington and Kiev both blame Russian-backed separatists from the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic for attacking the plane with a 9k37 BUK missile system. These rebels had bragged about possessing the weapon before the attack.
The BUK is in the upper tier of the world's antiaircraft weapons. It's considerably more advanced and has more complicated procedures to fire than point-and-shoot, shoulder-fired missiles. Its missiles can climb to an altitude of 46,000 feet at Mach 3 speeds, packing more than a 154-pound high-explosive warhead.
Separatists in eastern Ukraine have already proved adept at using less-sophisticated missiles to shoot down Ukrainian fighter jets and helicopters. This achievement alone, however, would not automatically give them the know-how to operate a BUK.
But the basics of operating even advanced surface-to-air weapons are relatively easy to learn - they need to be so that operators can use them even in the heat of battle - and instructions are available online. Training manuals featuring intuitive, detailed guidance on using such weapons are on the Web. The manuals include instructions on how to do most tasks, including turning the systems on, activating the radar antenna, understanding radar data and firing the missile.
More difficult, though, is committing these steps to memory and learning tactics for how to best deploy a system on the battlefield. The U.S. Army requires 10 weeks of continuous training, for example, for operators deployed with the Patriot anti-surface-to-air missile - one of the Pentagon's most advanced such weapons. Soldiers have to learn how to calculate targeting data by both hand and electronic means. Training also includes learning complex tasks, including how to identify targets.
For obvious reasons, on-the-job training continues after initial instruction. It's unknown how much training rebels in eastern Ukraine would have received to operate the BUK. Ten weeks constitutes a thorough, professional course. But learning enough of the BUK's systems to fire a missile could take far less time.
After the Cold War, the Hungarian military decommissioned many of its Soviet-built antiaircraft missile launchers. Amateur hobbyists accessed the technical documentation for several of these launchers, photographed the instrument panels and built a software simulator that can be downloaded off the Internet.
Within a few hours, one can learn - but not master - the basics of six Soviet-era antiaircraft missile launchers or one radar-directed heavy machine gun. SAM Simulator includes the 2K11 KRUG, which fires high-altitude semi-active radar-homing missiles similar to the BUK. Instructions are included.
These systems are not identical to the BUK, but the interfaces of Russian systems tend to be more alike than different in order to simplify training.
The basic steps are surprisingly easy. The KRUG's control panels - animated versions of the system's real-life panels - are a series of utilitarian, monochrome screens next to rows of switches. Flip a few, and a gas-fed engine will accelerate enough to signal when it's time to turn on the radar. The signals are simply lights embedded around the various switches, knobs and dials.
But using the radar to locate and track aircraft is far harder - and that's in a controlled, simulated computer program. Learning how to reset the weapon's electronic systems is also tricky, and the simulator leaves this part out. It's also different when operating one of these weapons in hot and cramped conditions, with the trouble compounded by stress and lack of sleep.
There is also a big difference between being able to fire a missile and hit a target, and being able to discriminate between targets. Putting the launcher in a position where it can locate an aircraft is one thing, but looking at a blip on a CRT monitor and determining whether it's a fighter jet, a cruise missile or a civilian airliner is a complicated situation.
"The BUK launcher is just one part of an entire air defense system," Joseph Trevithick, a defense analyst and fellow at GlobalSecurity.org, told me in an email. "National air-traffic systems and local air-search radars assigned to the air-defense unit are supposed to bear the brunt of actually figuring out who's a hostile and who's a friendly or a neutral. There's no indication that these separatists had anything besides the launcher, and would not have been able to readily ID their target or communicate with it first - even if they had wanted to."
The BUK does not possess the ability to discern civilian from military targets on its own. This reflects the inherent dangers of deploying such advanced weapons near civilian aircraft - especially with operators who may not be fully professionally trained. Shaky communications, poor command-and-control systems and inadequate training make error all the more likely.
Even well-trained antiaircraft missile units have difficulty identifying targets. During the 1991 Persian Gulf War, a combination of software and human errors involving U.S. Patriot anti-surface-to-air missile systems resulted in the accidental downing of one U.S. Navy F/A-18 fighter and a British Tornado fighter.
"The Patriots scared the hell out of us," one F-16 pilot veteran recounted to historian Benjamin Lambeth in "The Unseen War: Allied Air Power and the Takedown of Saddam Hussein." In another incident, an F-16 pilot fired on a Patriot missile system, destroying the Patriot's radar dish after it locked onto the fighter.
"I don't think it's hard to believe that Russian separatists could have learned to operate one of these systems," Trevithick adds, "and that they could have wanted to improve their air defenses against increasing Ukrainian airstrikes. These separatists have already shown great skill at shooting down lower-flying aircraft, so they're clearly all in favor of the basic concept."
The BUK missile launcher suspected in the attack on the Malaysian airliner has since disappeared from separatist-controlled eastern Ukraine. For now. But learning how to use it wasn't out of reach. (Robert Beckhusen)