LONDON - If Ukrainian rebels shot down the Malaysian jetliner, killing 298 people, it may have been because they didn't have the right systems in place to distinguish between military and civilian aircraft, experts said Saturday.
American officials said Friday that they believe the Boeing 777 was brought down by an SA-11 missile fired from an area of eastern Ukraine controlled by pro-Russian separatists. U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power said the Russians might have provided technical help to the rebels to operate the systems.
But to function correctly, an SA-11 launcher, also known as a Buk, is supposed to be connected to a central radar command - as opposed to acting alone - to be certain of exactly what kind of aircraft it is shooting at.
From the information that has come to light so far, the rebels don't appear to have such systems, said Pavel Felgenhauer, a respected defense columnist for Novaya Gazeta, a Moscow-based newspaper known for its critical coverage of Russian affairs.
"They could easily make a tragic mistake and shoot down a passenger plane when indeed they wanted to shoot down a Ukrainian transport plane," he said.
On Friday, Russia's state-owned RIA Novosti news agency also quoted Konstantin Sivkov, director of the Academy of Geopolitical Problems, as saying Buk missiles "should be provided with external systems of target identification, that is, radio-location systems. It's an entire system. And the insurgents certainly don't have radio-location."
Without a backup, a missile can be fired by operators who are not totally sure of what they are aiming at.
"Just seeing a blip on a radar screen was in no away sufficient to make a targeting decision," said Keir Giles, associate fellow for international security and Russia and Eurasia programs at the Royal Institute of International Affairs. "You need an additional radar system to which these weapons systems can be connected for additional information."
Social media postings from the rebels in the immediate aftermath of Thursday's Malaysia Airlines disaster also suggested they had assumed civilian aircraft were avoiding the area and that anything in the air was hostile.
If a missile was fired without attempting to identify the aircraft, the destruction of Malaysia Flight 17 would be an act of criminal negligence, said retired U.S. Air Force Maj. Gen. Robert Latiff. He said commercial airliners operate on known communications frequencies and emit signals that identify them and give their altitude and speed.
"It doesn't sound like the separatists were using any of this (information), or tried for that matter," said Latiff, who oversaw advanced weapons research and development for the Air Force and now teaches at the University of Notre Dame.