Initial U.S. intelligence assessments indicate that pro-Russian separatists are responsible for shooting a commercial airliner out of the sky with a Soviet Union-era, surface-to-air missile.
A senior Pentagon official said that although the pro-Russian separatists are likely to blame, it is still too early for the Defense Department to say for sure that they are responsible for the killing the 298 people who were aboard Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17 when it crashed Thursday afternoon.
There is mounting speculation among Pentagon officials that whoever brought the plane down used a Russian missile system to achieve that goal.
Anthony Cordesman, a national security analyst for the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think-tank institution based in Washington, concurred with that assessment. Both the Russian-made SA-11 and SA-17 have radars that can track and kill planes flying at high altitudes, he said. The SA-11 can hit targets flying at altitudes up to 45,000 to 60,000 feet, and SA-17 can hit targets flying between 70,000 and 82,000 feet, Mr. Cordesman said.
“The SA-11 and SA-17 are systems that are broadly deployed in former Soviet Union forces. They are successors to the SA-6, and are in both Ukrainian and Russian hands,” he said. “Rebel holdings are uncertain but General Philip Breedlove, NATO Supreme Allied Commander Europe, warned in June that the Russian government had been training pro-Russian separatists inside Russia to have an ‘anti-aircraft capability.’ “
U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power said during an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council that although Ukrainians do have SA-11 systems in their inventory, the United States is not aware of any of those systems existing in the area of the shoot-down. Also, it is important to note that, since the beginning of the crisis, Ukrainian air defenses have not fired a single missile.
U.S. intelligence officials are led to believe that pro-Russian separatists are responsible for shooting down the commercial airplane because they “initially claimed responsibility for shooting down a military transport plane and posted videos that are now being connected to the Malaysian airlines crash,” Ms. Power said.
Separatist leaders initially boasted on social media about shooting the plane out of the sky, but later deleted those messages, she said.
It is possible, Ms. Power said, that they did not act alone.
“Because of the technical complexity of the SA-11, it is unlikely that the separatists could effectively operate the system without assistance from knowledgeable personnel,” she said. “Thus, we cannot rule out technical assistance from Russian personnel in operating the systems.”
Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby said Friday that the Defense Department were doubtful the separatists acted alone in their war campaign. The missile system used to shoot down the Malaysian airliner is quite complex, he said.
“It strains credulity to think that it can be used by separatists with some measure of Russian support and assistance,” he said.
The Pentagon official noted that intelligence gathering is ongoing and analysts have yet to determine exactly what system was used, who had the capability to use the system and who was involved in the operation.
Also inconclusive, the official said, is whether the sophisticated surface-to-air missile that targeted and downed the airliner originated from Ukraine or Russia.
While the Pentagon is following up on intelligence leads, the White House is calling for an immediate cease-fire in Eastern Ukraine, allowing international investigators to access the crash site without endangering their lives.