Israeli planes vulnerable to missiles that downed MH17

Hezbollah, Syria have missiles like those that hit Malaysian plane; Israeli expert warns any aircraft can be hit

Wreckage of a Malaysian airliner carrying 295 people from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur after it crashed, near the town of Shaktarsk, in rebel-held east Ukraine, July 17, 2014. (photo credit: AFP/DOMINIQUE FAGET)
Wreckage of a Malaysian airliner carrying 295 people from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur after it crashed, near the town of Shaktarsk, in rebel-held east Ukraine, July 17, 2014. (photo credit: AFP/DOMINIQUE FAGET)

Planes landing at and taking off from Ben Gurion Airport have nothing to worry about from Hamas rockets, according to one of the world’s foremost experts on missile defense, but the antiaircraft missiles thought to have brought down the Malaysian airliner over Ukraine are another matter altogether. No one is safe from them.

“The rockets Hamas fires, even the big ones that can reach Tel Aviv, are like big firecrackers and are not capable of hitting or bringing down a commercial airliner,” according to the expert, Uzi Rubin. “With Iron Dome, the chances of such a hit are next to nothing.”

If travelers to and from Israel should be worried about anything, said Rubin, it’s the military-grade missiles in the hands of Hezbollah, which could target and take down a plane flying over the Mediterranean. “Iran has these Russian-made systems, which means that Syria and Hezbollah have them as well.” Hamas, he said, apparently does not have them — at least not yet.

Even so, there’s no need to worry too much. “Military-grade heat seeking missiles are a problem for all planes all over the world,” said Rubin, founder and director of the Defense Ministry’s Israel Missile Defense Organization that oversaw the implementation of the Arrow long-range anti-missile system. “It could even happen in the skies over Ukraine,” noted Rubin, who is currently a staff member at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies (BESA).

As it indeed did. American and European defense officials point to a Russian-made SA-11 (Buk) surface-to-air missile (SAM), fired by Ukrainian separatists, as the agent of death that for 295 people on Malaysia Airlines’ flight MH17 on July 17. There is not, at this time, any system to protect commercial aircraft against such missiles. “Commercial planes that are targeted with such missiles are sitting ducks,” said Rubin.

That’s not to say that air defenses for SAMs aren’t being developed — or don’t exist. “If the terrorists had targeted a plane like the F-35 military jet, there would probably have not been a crash, because those planes have technology to outrun and outwit heat-seeking missiles like the ones fired at MH17,” said Rubin. “Until now, most defenses for commercial aircraft have focused on threats from shoulder-to-air missiles, known as MANPADs (man-portable missiles), like the ones fired at an Israeli plane in Kenya in 2002.”

In that attack, terrorists bombed an Israeli-owned hotel, killing 13 people, and other terrorists fired two Strela 2 (SA-7) shoulder-launched missiles at an Arkia chartered plane. The missiles missed the aircraft, but the attack prompted Israel to develop a defense system for commercial planes that could defend against MANPADs. Earlier this year, El Al Israel Airlines announced that it was adopting an Elbit-produced system, called SkyShield, that includes laser weapons to knock out MANPADs before they can hit a plane.

Using a sophisticated radar system, SkyShield tracks incoming MANPADs and deflects them by using a powerful laser beam. The system can be installed in various parts of the plane and is easy to operate, with no special training needed. “Other airlines besides El Al are considering similar systems, but they won’t help against Buks or other similar missiles,” said Rubin.

It would be possible to attach the technology used in military aircraft that protects against SA-11s and their like to commercial planes, but “it would cost a lot of money,” Rubin said, and while he could not say exactly how much, one could extrapolate that it would be quite expensive, considering that a single F35 military plane costs about $100 million. “In addition, it would cost in terms of space and weight. The system would add load to the plane, requiring more fuel, and seats would have to be eliminated to accommodate the system.”

Eventually, he believes, more affordable and practical technology is likely to be developed — but until then, “there’s not much a pilot can do to avoid this threat, except to pray. If it’s any comfort, everyone around the world is in the same boat.”

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