What is a Buk/SA-11 missile? Could it have shot down MH17?

WATCH:  The investigation is quickly zeroing in on the Buk missile believed to have brought down the Malaysian Airlines jetliner and who fired it. Eric Sorensen explains.

TORONTO – Military experts and analysts have named the Buk/SA-11 missile system as the weapon that shot down Malaysian Flight MH17 over eastern Ukraine on Thursday.

A shoulder-powered missile system with a range of just 3,000 metres is out of the question: MH17 was flying far outside that range, at an altitude of about 10,000 metres.

READ MORE: Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 – More than 180 bodies found at crash site

Though the Ukrainian government, rebel forces and Russian authorities have all denied culpability, whatever missile was used had to belong to a powerful, high-tech system that would require intensive training, experts say.

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The Russian-designed Buk system, typically known as an SA-11 “Gadfly” in the west, carries surface-to-air missiles that can reach an altitude of 22,000 metres. The system is usually comprised of three components: radar, a command post and one or more launchers, all mounted on vehicles.

But it’s possible for the launcher to operate as a mobile stand-alone system.

VIDEO GALLERY: The loss of Flight MH17

“Its built-in radar is normally used to track the target being engaged, but can be operated in a target-detection mode, allowing it to autonomously engage targets that were present in the radar’s forward field of view,” Doug Richardson wrote in a press release from the global information company IHS. Richardson is the editor of IHS Jane’s, a company specializing in military, aerospace and transportation issues.

BUK/SA-11 by the numbers:


  • Simultaneous targets (when used with radar and command post)

9,800 metres

  • Slant range

22,000 metres

  • Altitude

3,000 km/hr

  • Speed of rockets launched
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Konrad Muzyka, an analyst who specializes in Europe and former Soviet states, said using a system like the Buk/SA-11 would be no easy task. Even if the missile-launcher is used on its own, it’s a complicated piece of machinery that would require extensive training.

“The question is if it was the separatists – and a lot of circumstantial evidence points that it could have been them – was it from the Ukraine or Russian government?” Muzyka said.

“And if it was captured, who trained them?”

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The Russian-made Buk/SA-11 was designed in the 1970s and came into use the following decade. Each of the four missiles in the mobile system carries a highly explosive warhead. Muzyka says it’s unlikely the MH17’s pilot would have seen the missile coming: It travels at roughly 850 metres a second.

Several videos have emerged of what many are calling proof that the Buk/SA-11 systems were being moved in the region where the plane crashed. Muzyka said he’s seen the videos and confirmed the missile systems shown are indeed the SA-11. But he couldn’t say where they were.

Some Associated Press journalists saw a system similar to the SA-11 moving through rebel-held territory on Thursday.

Some have suggested the missile in question could have been the SA-20. Muzyka said that’s unlikely due the complexity of such a system.

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“There had been discussion about a year ago about the SA-20 being deployed to Syria, but that would have been a game-changer,” Muzyka said. “It is such a complex and deadly system.”