Last Thursday, a Boeing 777 hurtled to the ground near the village of Hrabove in Eastern Ukraine resulting in the death of 298 civilians. The U.S. has confirmed that the airliner was shot down by a missile. On Sunday, Secretary of State John Kerry told CNN it was “pretty clear” that Russia had played a role in the plane’s crash. An adviser to Ukraine’s interior minister claimed that Russian-backed separatists shot the airliner out of the sky with a surface-to-air-missile launched from a Buk-M2E system. What is a surface-to-air missile? How does it operate? Heritage expert Michaela Dodge answers these questions and more.

There is speculation that the MH17 was shot down by a Surface-to-Air missile (SAM).  Can you explain what a SAM is and a little about its history?

Surface-to-air missiles are launched from the ground to destroy airborne targets, like airplanes or other relatively short range missiles. These systems were developed during the Second World War and have improved dramatically since.

How does a SAM operate?

The system consists of an interceptor, radar, and command and control architecture. Its attributes depend on the size of the interceptor, its mobility, and range. In general, the heavier the interceptor, the more capability and range it has. The weight, however, limits the range of the interceptor.

Anton Herashchenko,an adviser to Ukraine’s interior minister, claimed that the SAM was launched from a Buk-M2E system.  Can you explain the capabilities of this system?

The Buk-M2 system (depending on the model, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization designator is “Gadfly” for older models and “Grizzly” for newer models of the system, while Department of Defense designator is “SA-11” for older models and “SA-17” for newer models of the system) is a Soviet/Russian medium-range air defense system that first entered into service in 1979. The latest deployed version of the system was upgraded in 1990s.

The Buk-M2 missile battery consists of two transporter erector launchers and radar vehicles and a transporter erector launcher vehicle. The system’s interceptor range is around 20 miles. Depending on the type of radar the system uses, it can track flying objects between 200 feet to 15.5 miles altitude.

Could a SAM launched from the Buk-M2E system reach the height at which the MH17 was flying (33,000 ft)?

Yes, it can.

What are the implications for the conflict between Kiev and Moscow if the airliner was brought down by Russian backed separatists?

The downing of an airplane by the Russian backed separatists in Ukraine constitutes a serious escalation of hostilities between the two countries. The failure of the United States and our allies in Europe to enact serious retaliation against Russia for their blatant violation of Ukraine’s territorial integrity has allowed the crisis in Ukraine to fester with deadly and tragic consequences. Rather than vacationing, President Obama should address the issue head on, provide assistance to the Ukrainian government and there should be serious ramifications for Moscow.

How should the U.S. respond?

The U.S. should carefully examine evidence of the Russian involvement in the crash. The U.S. must continue to press for an international independent investigation of the crash, pressure the anti-Ukrainian government opposition group into providing safe access to international inspector team, and press for a full cooperation of all parties. Furthermore, it should provide the Ukrainian government with electronic countermeasures to protect its airplanes from further attacks.

Obama should make a public statement recognizing that his administration’s policies towards Russia have failed, that the Russian reset is dead, and that the United States must enact a new strategy for dealing with Russia that recognizes Russia as a strategic competitor and destabilizing influence in the region, rather than viewing Russia as a partner to be placated. Obama must again underscore America’s commitment to our NATO allies, allies in the region, and to the transatlantic alliance.