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.