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Think It's Easy to Shoot Down an Airliner With a Missile?

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Buttons, switches, and knobs. A pale green radarscope mounted in a drab, gray instrument panel. Mysterious symbols and numbers denoting an aircraft six miles high in the sky.

Was this the last thing the killers saw before they fired the missile that shot down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17?

I was playing "SAM Simulator," a virtual recreation of the instrumentation and procedures for firing a surface-to-air missile (SAM) like the one that shot down MH17 over Ukraine, killing 298 passengers and crew (the software is free -- you can download it here).

There are squadrons of simulators that let armchair pilots fly a fighter jet, a Cessna passenger plane, or a helicopter. And, of course, militaries have expensive simulators to train their missile crews. But an anti-aircraft missile simulator that an ordinary person can play on their PC? That's unique.

In fact, SAM Simulator is a true labor of love by a Hungarian who is enamored with all things SAM. He goes by the pseudonym of Hpasp. And while he never served in the military, let alone fired a real missile, he painstakingly compiled the data and visuals for the sim by scouring old Soviet technical manuals and visiting Hungarian military museums.

Could SAM Simulator help me to understand what the missile crew saw -- even perhaps what went through their minds -- before they launched the weapon that destroyed Flight MH17?

Unfortunately, it wasn't that simple. The weapons featured in SAM Simulator are older Soviet missiles from the 1960s and early 1970s. More specifically, they are weapons the Soviet Union gave to Communist Hungary, including the SA-2, SA-3, SA-4, SA-5 and SA-8 missile systems, as well as the ZSU-23-4 self-propelled anti-aircraft gun.

The missile that shot down MH17 appears to have been an SA-11 (Soviet code name "Buk", NATO code name "Gadfly"), a weapon still used by Russia but not by Hungary, which is now in the NATO alliance. The SA-11 was introduced in 1979 and its controls are more sophisticated than earlier rockets. "The SA-1 to SA-8 had only limited analog fire control calculators," Hpasp told me in an email. "The SA-10, SA-11, SA-12 and so on, have digital computers, and thus completely different user interfaces."

Still, judging by a video of the inside of an SA-11 launch vehicle, the Buk control panel doesn't look that much different than other Soviet systems featured in SAM Simulator. Anyway, it's close enough that I decided to try my hand at the SA-3 "Neva" (or NATO code name "Goa" according to NATO's Bureau of Goofy Names). The SA-3, first deployed in 1961, was the missile the Yugoslavians used to shoot down an F-117 stealth fighter in 1999.

SAM Simulator recreates missile and radar control panels in what seems to be perfect detail, down to the Cyrillic labels beneath each button and switch. You push the buttons, flip the switches, and turn the knobs and firing keys in the same sequence that you would the real weapons, except that your computer mouse does the work instead of your fingers.

Image: UV59 csatornája/YouTube

Never actually having fired a surface-to-air missile, or any missile for that matter, I had instinctively considered firing a SAM a fairly simple, automated push-button form of warfare. After trying SAM Simulator, I'm amazed that these missiles can even get off the ground.

Part of the difficulty rests with the software. Though meticulous, SAM Simulator lacks a solid tutorial for the novice missileman. There are some vague instructions and a few videos on the website (without sound), but no flashing message to tell you which buttons to push, or more important, which buttons not to push.

This leads to the second problem, which is that firing a SAM is a complex procedure. To fire an SA-3, the player must locate on the plotting chart a target with a designation like 2401 130/51 (the numbers identify the missile battery, target type and target altitude).

That's the easy part. Then you have to acquire the target with the SA-3's Low Blow fire control radar, which means switching to the radar display, turning on the radar system, traversing the radar antenna, switching between the 40-kilometer and 80-kilometer range mode, and switching on the moving target indicator if the aircraft is flying low (which includes fine tuning a target speed selector switch). Then it's time to fire the missile: which means choosing one of six methods to guide the missile to its target, examining rows of colored lights to check the status of the missile battery's four launchers, starting the designated missile's 30-second preparation countdown, waiting for the missile gyroscope light to illuminate, and watching the missile close in on its target on the radar display. If the missile hits, an "X" appears on the plotting chart. That's somehow a less-than-satisfying conclusion.

And by the way, this is the short version of the checklist. For the record, I did not manage to hit the target.

Yet complicated as the process sounds, it is important to remember that these missiles do work. Soviet-made SAMs shot down hundreds of U.S. and Israeli aircraft over Hanoi and Suez. The crew that shot down MH17 may or may not have accidentally shot down an airliner that they mistook for a warplane -- or perhaps even the wrong airliner. But they were proficient enough with their weapon to hit an aircraft flying more than 600 miles per hour at six miles above the Earth's surface. That means these guys were not a bunch of angry Ukrainian farmers.

However, it does seem that the process of firing a 50-year-old SAM like the SA-3 is complex enough to leave plenty of room for error (even the SA-11 Buk is 35 years old). But then that's also the case with newer, more sophisticated Western missiles: a U.S. Patriot SAM shot down a British Tornado fighter in 2003 over Kuwait, killing both crewmen.

Which leads back to my original question: What did the missile crew that shot down Flight MH17 actually see? We may never know for certain whether they knew they were firing on an innocent airliner. But as in SAM Simulator, the target itself was just symbols and numbers on glowing screens, to be obliterated by flicking some controls on a drab instrumental panel.

Deadly, but so very impersonal.

Sovfoto/UIG via Getty Images

COLUMN

We Come in 'Peace'

Russia's invasion of eastern Ukraine won't be an armored blitzkrieg. It's a slow, seditious drip -- and it's already underway.

The joke among Ukrainians goes something like this: "What's happened today? Has Russia invaded us yet?" For those living the reality of having a portion of their country occupied by Russian intelligence agents and insurgents -- all armed with Moscow-dispatched weapons, of course -- the question isn't whether Vladimir Putin will launch a full-scale assault on his neighbor, but when he'll do it. This week, U.S., NATO, and European officials all seemed to agree that the prospect of that event occurring has risen precipitously.

Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk said at a press conference on Aug. 6, "We have reasons to suspect -- we have been receiving such information in the last several hours -- that the risk of a direct intervention is higher than it was several days ago." NATO spokeswoman Oana Lungescu wrote in an emailed statement to Reuters that Russia might use "the pretext of a humanitarian or peace-keeping mission as an excuse to send troops into Eastern Ukraine" -- an observation that didn't exactly require much human intelligence given that Vitaly Churkin, Russia's ambassador to the United Nations, spent all day on Aug. 5 trying to get the U.N. Security Council to authorize a peacekeeping mission as an excuse to send troops into eastern Ukraine.

Alarmingly, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov is attempting to portray the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) as studying a proposal to run "humanitarian aid" into the region, although the ICRC has not made any such announcement. ITAR-TASS quotes Lavrov as saying that the Red Cross "supported this approach" and that he hopes, within short order, to work out the "practical aspects of the implementation of this initiative." This, mere hours before Ukraine released an intercepted phone call suggesting that separatists had detained three members of the Red Cross, who are still missing. I wonder who'll volunteer to get them back....

If Moscow isn't planning to invade, they're sure doing a good job making it look otherwise. Russia is conducting yet another war game encompassing its western and central military districts and featuring over 100 aircraft, including fighter jets and bombers, which will coordinate their activities with anti-missile defenses, as a Russian Air Force spokesperson told Interfax. There are now some 20,000 Russian troops stationed at the border.

"These battalion groups consist of infantry, armor and artillery, and also have organic air defense capabilities," Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby said last week, noting that these groups were "capable across a wide spectrum of military operations." According to the New York Times, the United States is unable to count, with any real precision, the number of troops amassed at the border because the Russians are always on the move and camouflaging their combat equipment. If Putin only wanted to scare Ukraine, or to exercise a little hard-power leverage with the West, he wouldn't hide his toys from U.S. satellites flying overhead. He'd signpost them.

Nor are these soldiers armed with the rusty and creaking hardware that rolled off the assembly line when Andropov was in power. As my colleague Andrew Bowen reported for Foreign Policy last week, the Russian soldiery perched at Ukraine's doorstep is "far more advanced than the Soviet divisions that were pointed at NATO." These troops are the shiny, new advertisements of the vast modernization program of the Russian armed forces, which began in 2008 in response to the noticeable deficiencies in Russia's invasion of Georgia, another war that began in August.

On Aug. 6, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu announced during an inspection of a military base in Samara: "The world has changed, changed dramatically. As you know from previous cases ... peacekeeping units may be called upon unexpectedly. This is precisely why divisions and brigades of the peacekeeping forces must maintain constant combat readiness." My team at The Interpreter has confirmed reports that Russian military vehicles have been painted with "Mirotvorcheskiye Sily" ("peacekeeping") emblems, similar to those previously deployed in Transnistria and Georgia.

What further proof does one need that the immolation of 298 civilians last month did absolutely nothing to soften Putin's resolve about furthering the war?

He is still sending materiel to the separatists, including tanks, rockets, and air defense systems such as Buk anti-aircraft missiles, which is what Western officials believe shot down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, and one of which was reportedly used again today to shoot down a Ukrainian MiG-29 jet. Last week, two Ukrainian military convoys were demolished by Grad rockets just south of the crash site of the airliner. Ukraine last week seized tanks emblazoned with the insignia of the Russian Airborne Troops (VDV), an elite military force that was instrumental in taking Crimea last March. The head of the VDV, Col. Gen. Vladimir Shamanov, has promised to expand his operations beyond Russian Federation territory, and Ukraine is not necessarily paranoid in suggesting that the launching ground for an invasion may also encompass Crimea, which is why Kiev argues that the real figure of Russian troops surrounding the country is more like 45,000.

Next week, in fact, Putin is set to host high-level talks with Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and most of the Duma in the annexed Ukrainian peninsula. "The main message (of the trip) is political, to show that Crimea is an integral part of Russia and that there's no turning back despite the sanctions," a source from the ruling United Russia party told Reuters. What better place from which to inaugurate the next phase of a war than land he stole in the first phase?

There is also every indication that tougher U.S. and European Union sanctions have not exercised Russia's oligarchs, in whom the West has placed too much hope for pressuring or cajoling Putin into a climb-down. Sanctions haven't done much to frighten the country's billionaires, at least judging by their own rhetoric. In a recent interview, Gennady Timchenko, the U.S.-sanctioned founder of the Swiss commodities-trading firm Gunvor -- a company in which Putin has investments and may have access to funds, according to the U.S. Treasury Department -- said that Russia's elite will not be swayed by financial warfare. "Vladimir Vladimirovich [Putin] is only thinking about the interest of Russia. Full stop," Timchenko said. "There can be no compromise here. And it won't even cross our [businessmen's] minds to speak out about this subject. It is naive to think that with such methods anyone will scare us or force us to retreat." (On Aug 4. Timchenko even announced his intention to build a $1.12 billion underground railway conduit, similar to the Anglo-French "Chunnel," under the Kerch Strait to conjoin Crimea with mainland Russia.)

Unsurprisingly, Moscow's renewed attempts to fortify its proxy militants coincide with Kiev's steady work in battering them. One should pay close attention to the Ukrainian towns of Torez and Shakhtyorsk. They are of vital strategic importance to the separatists because the two main road arteries that connect the "People's Republic of Donetsk" (DPR) to the "People's Republic of Lugansk" (LPR) run right through them. These areas are where a Buk system, minus some of its missiles, has been spotted in the last few weeks; they're also routes that have lately been interdicted by Ukraine's Anti-Terrorism Operation (ATO) forces, which are tasked with breaking the back of the insurgency. The more it appears imminent that the separatists in the DPR will be starved of Russian resupplies, the greater the likelihood that Putin will mount an incursion to prop them up more directly.

Ukraine's military just entered Marinka, another suburb of Donetsk, pulling the noose ever tighter. Also, the self-declared "prime minster" of the DPR, Alexander Borodai, resigned today, naming another separatist leader, Alexander Zakharchenko, as his successor (but noting that he'd stay on as vice premier and an advisor). This came after Borodai spent weeks in Moscow trying to enlist greater direct Russian military support for the war. So why is he out of a job all of a sudden? Well, the 38-year-old Zakharchenko is the commander of Oplot ("bastion"), a unit of the separatists that was among the first to raid the administration building in Donetsk last April. He was also wounded in battle on July 22, as recently exhibited on YouTube. Unlike Borodai, who's from Moscow, Zakharchenko is a native of Donetsk. This could indicate that, if Russia is planning a military operation, it wants a hardened and domestic proxy leader out front, or right behind, its own troop columns.

Meanwhile, the head of Ukraine's Security Service (SBU), Valentin Nalivaychenko, held a press conference in which he stated two things. First, the separatists were actually supposed to shoot down not MH17 on July 17, but AFL2074 -- an Aeroflot commercial plane that had a similar flight path and was en route from Moscow to Larnaca, Cyprus -- in order to blame it on Kiev and thus furnish a pretext for a Russian invasion, which was to have commenced the following day. Second, because the entire operation was so badly botched, Nalivaychenko claimed, the GRU, Russia's military intelligence agency, is now set on assassinating the separatists responsible. Neither allegation has been confirmed, but both are of great interest to anyone following this conflict.

Indeed, because Ukraine is doing relatively well in retaking occupied territory, and has been since the capture a month ago of Slavyansk, the erstwhile separatist headquarters, two developments have occurred in tandem. The twin zones of the DPR and LPR have shrunk conspicuously, and they've become more isolated from each other. The Interpreter created this time-lapse image, drawing on daily maps of the conflict compiled by the civic journalist website Liveuamap.com, showing just how much territory the separatists have lost since July 13. No doubt the Russian General Staff is looking at similar battlefield data and planning accordingly.

A full-scale invasion and occupation may be disastrous, as Russian military analyst Alexander Golts and U.S. Naval War College professor John Schindler have argued. But Moscow may only be looking to establish supply "corridors" inside Ukraine, under the guise of a humanitarian intervention, to ensure the continued flow of weapons to its proxies. In this respect, Russia's role in eastern Ukraine could resemble Hezbollah's in the Qalamoun region of Syria, where the Party of God has, with mixed results, spent months trying to keep a direct line of martial aid flowing from Damascus, thereby keeping the anti-Assad rebellion well away from another volatile and fast-eroding border -- the one between Syria and Lebanon.

There are hard interests for Moscow at stake here, even if they come in the guise of softer humanitarian concern. Propaganda usually precedes aggression, and the Kremlin's messaging in the last few days points to "peacekeeping" as the newest banner of maskirovka.

Last week, for instance, 438 Ukrainian servicemen from the 72nd Brigade, 164 of them border guards, crossed over into Gukovo, in the Rostov oblast of Russia, which happens to be the same place from which troops fired Grad rockets into Ukraine on July 15. They were given a military escort to a refugee camp stationed there. Vasily Malayev, the spokesman for the Rostov region border service, which is controlled by the FSB, Russia's domestic security agency, said that the Ukrainian troops "were tired of war and didn't want to fight anymore" and had destroyed their weapons and ammunition before crossing over. ITAR-TASS alleged that they all sought asylum in Russia, which would classify them as not only deserters but also traitors. The story also ran in LifeNews, a media outlet that is considered by many to be the information arm of Russian intelligence, and was presented as follows: "According to Ukrainian military, before they crossed the border they had been told that Russia was an 'aggressor country' engaged in combat operations against them. Now, they have made sure it was not true, they added." Foreign Minister Lavrov seconded this narrative and expanded upon it, casting Moscow as the guarantor of refuge for all exhausted and demoralized fellow Slavs who have had no choice but to escape a grinding war. "We have helped, offering medical assistance and given the possibility of return to all those who wanted it without impeding them, without keeping anyone forcibly," he said.

Only the entire tale turned out to be an invention.

Andriy Lysenko, the chairman of Ukraine's National Security and Defense Council, rejected the claim that the servicemen were asylum seekers: "We are currently maintaining contact with them through diplomatic channels. They want to return to their Motherland." Lysenko was right.

The BBC's Steven Rosenberg traveled to the Gukovo refugee camp and met with the soldiers, some of whom said they had been "under intense pressure" -- but by whom, exactly, they didn't specify. (The Ukrainian side of the border isn't as well populated as the Russian side; it has also produced little by way of photographic or video evidence of combat operations, and so it's entirely possible that conventional Russian units have already penetrated Ukrainian territory, posing as separatists or perhaps not even bothering to.) Under fire, the Ukrainian troops ran out of ammunition and received no backup, so they retreated away from the onslaught, into Russia. A Russian security official then claimed to Rosenberg that the combatants were all free to return home, or to remain. "We didn't find anyone here who was keen to stay," Rosenberg said, which gels with what the OSCE Observer Mission noted on Aug. 4: that no Ukrainian solider had applied for asylum in Gukovo. "Ukraine is my home. It's where I was born, and where I belong," one serviceman told Rosenberg. Another said Russia was to blame for stoking the violence in his country.

On Aug. 5, 195 men from the 72nd Brigade were allowed to leave and cross back into Ukraine -- upon which they were ambushed and attacked by separatists in Olginka in the Donetsk region. No one was killed, but Lysenko alleged that this, too, was a "provocation, arranged by pro-Russian mercenaries with the aim of discrediting the armed forces and leadership of Ukraine, playing it as a case of Ukrainian soldiers' revenge against 'traitors.'"

By now, we should be familiar enough with the prewritten script Moscow will recite if it does ultimately choose to invade Ukraine: "Kiev has lost control of its territory and it is trying to execute its own men, whom it has tricked into believing they are at war with us. Barack Obama is stuck in his Cold War mentality and has tried and failed to isolate Russia for trying only to prevent a disaster created by the United States and the European Union -- and now perpetrated by a junta of homosexual neo-Nazis in Kiev. We must reluctantly admit that we now have no choice but to attempt to restore calm in eastern Ukraine. Surely, those who invented the Responsibility to Protect doctrine will understand."

And even if they don't understand, Russia can always dispatch its "peacekeepers" into Ukraine anyway and deny that they're there ... until it's confident that the West won't or can't do anything to stop it -- at which point Putin can come clean in another press conference that seems as if it's been directed by David Lynch. Meanwhile, the not-yet-ended war in Gaza and the imminent extermination of a minority group in Iraq would serve as convenient distractions for what's already proved to be a bloody enough summer.

KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP/Getty Images