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Air Force general: U.S. isn’t bluffing on evidence in shootdown of Malaysian jet

A United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket blasts off from Cape Canaveral carrying the second Space-Based Infrared System GEO-2 satellite for the U.S. Air Force. (Photo by Pat Corkery/United Launch Alliance)

The Russian government has challenged the Obama administration to make public the satellite imagery and other intelligence that U.S. officials have cited as evidence that separatists destroyed the Malaysia Airlines plane with an SA-11 missile.

On Tuesday, the commander of the Air Force’s Space Command, which operates satellites that can detect missile launches around the world, declined to elaborate on what, exactly, the U.S. military was able to observe from space at the time of the shootdown. But the commander, Gen. William L. Shelton, was dismissive of Russian suggestions that the U.S. government was bluffing or exaggerating its evidence.

“It looks like an act of desperation,” Shelton said of demands from Russian military leaders that Washington make public any satellite imagery it collected from eastern Ukraine around the time of the aviation disaster. “I will say this about our satellites: They are very good satellites. They are very sensitive and they are very accurate.”

The Pentagon operates a constellation of satellites — known as the Space-Based Infrared System — that can detect missile launches from outer space. Shelton said infrared sensors on the satellites provide blanket global coverage, “24-7, all the time.”

The satellites, he said, can detect launches of intercontinental ballistic missiles and the launches of other satellites into space. But he declined to say whether they could observe other classes of missiles, such as the SA-11 anti-aircraft system allegedly used to shoot down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17. “We just don’t talk about it,” he said of the satellites’ specific capabilities.

Craig Whitlock covers the Pentagon and national security. He has reported for The Washington Post since 1998.
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