Need to learn to launch a BUK missile quick? Look online.

By Robert Beckhusen
July 30, 2014

A Buk M-23 air defence missile system is seen on display during the opening of the MAKS-2009 international air show in Zhukovsky outside Moscow

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.

Spectators watch a Russian "Buk" missile system being driven during the "Russia Arms Expo 2013" 9th international exhibition of arms, military equipment and ammunition, in the Urals city of Nizhny TagilBut 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.

BUK imageThese 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.”

Buk_missile_launchersThe 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.

 

PHOTO (TOP): A BUK M-23 air defence missile system is seen on display during the opening of the MAKS-2009 international air show in Zhukovsky outside Moscow, August 18, 2009. REUTERS/Alexander Natruskin

PHOTO (INSERT 1): Spectators watch a Russian BUK missile system being driven during the “Russia Arms Expo 2013″ 9th international exhibition of arms, military equipment and ammunition, in the Urals city of Nizhny Tagil, September 25, 2013. REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin

PHOTO (INSERT 2): Russian 9K37 BUK air defense system in 2010. WIKIMEDIA Commons

PHOTO (Insert 3): Russian 9K37 BUK surface-to-air missile launchers in 2010. WIKIMEDIA Commons

251 comments

We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/

Do you have a spam problem on this blog; I also am a blogger, and I was wondering your situation; we have developed some nice methods and we are looking to exchange techniques with others, be sure to shoot me an e-mail if interested.|

I am really enjoying the theme/design of your site. Do you ever run into any browser compatibility issues? A number of my blog audience have complained about my website not operating correctly in Explorer but looks great in Firefox. Do you have any ideas to help fix this problem?|

Good day! This post could not be written any better! Reading through this post reminds me of my previous room mate! He always kept talking about this. I will forward this article to him. Pretty sure he will have a good read. Thank you for sharing!|

I know this if off topic but I’m looking into starting my own blog and was wondering what all is needed to get setup? I’m assuming having a blog like yours would cost a pretty penny? I’m not very web smart so I’m not 100% positive. Any recommendations or advice would be greatly appreciated. Kudos|

Pretty nice post. I just stumbled upon your weblog and wanted to say that I’ve truly enjoyed browsing your blog posts. After all I’ll be subscribing to your rss feed and I hope you write again very soon!

For most up-to-date news you have to go to see the web and on world-wide-web I found this web page as a most excellent web page for newest updates.|

Exceptionally user friendly website. Enormous information readily available on couple of gos to.|

Keep on working, great job!|

Have you ever considered creating an ebook or guest authoring on other websites? I have a blog based upon on the same ideas you discuss and would really like to have you share some stories/information. I know my audience would enjoy your work. If you are even remotely interested, feel free to send me an e-mail.|

I was able to find good info from your articles.|

I’m impressed, I must say. Rarely do I encounter a blog that’s both equally educative and engaging, and without a doubt, you have hit the nail on the head. The issue is something not enough people are speaking intelligently about. Now i’m very happy that I found this in my search for something relating to this.|