From the debris of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 in eastern Ukraine, the first potential forensic proof of what shot down the doomed airliner is starting to appear on social media as more observers access the crash site.
The images show pieces of the aircraft riddled with holes roughly the size of a child’s fist. Evidence, some experts say, of a surface-to-air missile’s distinct detonation pattern.
“Although many of the holes may vary in size, the punctures seen in the photograph attached are relatively uniform in size, consistent with patterns exhibited by fragmentary warheads detonated at a proximity from the target,” Jane’s Military Capabilities Manager Reed Foster said in an e-mail. “This would potentially be consistent with a fragmentation type warhead employed upon a number of modern and legacy surface-to-air missile systems.”
Most surface-to-air missiles, such as those fired by the SA-11 or Buk M1 systems that the U.S. believes shot down MH17, detonate more than 50 feet away from their intended target. This premature detonation allows for a maximum spread of fragmentation into the airframe, damaging or destroying critical components to the aircraft including the engines, flaps and wings.
The pictures on Twitter also show a large amount of shrapnel impacts on what appears to be the cockpit portion of the aircraft. This overabundance of damage to the front of the plane potentially rules out an air-to-air missile attack, as a jet firing a missile at another aircraft usually engages from the rear. Additionally, surface-to-air missiles are traditionally more lethal as they contain larger explosive payloads than their air-to-air counterparts.
“There are historic examples of civilian aircraft surviving air-to-air missile engagement, but not of surface-to-air engagements, presumably due to the higher explosive yield/blast-wave as well as significantly more fragmentary materiel,” Foster wrote.
Yet according to James Hackett, a senior fellow for Defense and Military Analysis at The International Institute for Strategic Studies, even though most evidence points to a surface-to-air attack it is still impossible to be completely sure without pieces of the warhead that destroyed MH17.
“Without additional evidence…either in the form of additional fuselage sections or fragments from the weapon itself (such as from the warhead or casing) it is impossible to be more specific in identifying the precise mode of engagement or, definitively, the system employed,” Hackett wrote in an e-mail.