The possibility of someone bringing down an airliner with a SAM missile has been a long-standing source of concern, as reflected in Soyoung Ho’s piece on this subject for the Washington Monthly in April 2003. Back then, though, it was assumed that limitations on missile range meant airliners were only vulnerable for brief periods on takeoff and landing. As Ho noted, technological improvements could change everything:
Advances in missile technology…mean that should terrorists attempt to shoot down an airliner, they’ll be more likely to succeed. The latest models, manufactured primarily by the United States, Russia, Japan, and France, have ranges of over 22,000 feet. That means terrorists can fire from farther away; it also means that airliners are vulnerable during a longer portion of their takeoffs and landings. The new missiles are also more agile, so that, once launched, they’re better able to home in on the target and counter the pilot’s attempts to evade. Finally, they’re able to close in on aircraft from any direction, not just from behind—giving would-be terrorists greater flexibility in choosing a secure place from which to fire.
MH17 was apparently cruising at 33,000 feet, which would have made it safe from missiles until very recently. Clearly airline protocols need to keep up with technology and the lethal intentions of those deploying it.
Okay, stop. MH17 was reportedly shot down by a Buk surface-to-air missile (SAM), which also goes by the NATO classification SA-11 Gadfly and SA-17 Grizzly. I get the impression Ed Kilgore and Bill Maher think the SA-17 is a shoulder-launched weapon like the SA-7:
…which the -11/17 decidedly isn’t:
A standard Buk battalion consists of a command vehicle, target acquisition radar (TAR) vehicle, six transporter erector launcher and radar (TELAR) vehicles and three transporter erector launcher (TEL) vehicles. A Buk missile battery consists of two TELAR and one TEL vehicle. The battery requires no more than 5 minutes to set up before it is ready for engagement and can be ready for transit again in 5 minutes. The reaction time of the battery from target tracking to missile launch is around 22 seconds.
SA-17 TEL vehicles look like this:
The Buk’s missiles have been capable of striking targets at altitudes of up to 25,000 meters (82,000 feet) since 1998; the 9K37’s envelope when first introduced in 1980 was 14,000 m/46,000 ft. The 777 (which first flew in 1995) has a service ceiling of 43,000 ft. When, exactly, did the SA-11 have any difficulty reaching airliners lumbering along in the flight levels?
The SA-11 has been in Russian service for almost 40 years, a project that began in 1972 to field an even more formidable missile launcher than the SA-6 (the SAM system that nearly clipped the Israeli Air Force’s wings during the Yom Kippur War). During the late 1970s the Russians also first deployed the S-300 (NATO code SA-10 Grumble, SA-12 Giant/Gladiator, SA-20 Gargoyle and the SA-23—the final model being the Russian ABM variant S-300VM). With a range of up to 200 kilometers and the ability to strike aircraft flying at an altitude of 27,000 meters (88,500 feet), the S-300 along with Buk SAMs have been a formidable threat to both airliners and the military craft the Russian systems were designed to destroy for four decades.
Question: how are airlines supposed to “keep up with technology and the lethal intentions of those deploying it” when the penultimate Russian system, the 400 km-ranged S-400 (SA-21 Growler), is an enormous threat to highly maneuverable air superiority fighters?
Answer: they won’t. Buk and the S-300/400 are major military, not terrorist threats. A SAM TEL vehicle rumbling through the streets of New York or the fields of South Dakota is neither much of a threat (the massive vehicle would be quite noticeable to law enforcement before it could fire) nor likely to appear in any place not within the VPK (Russian military-industrial complex) sphere of influence (not to mention Russian vehicle-based SAMs are highly unlikely to threaten civilian IFR traffic in areas that aren’t known war zones).