Call to install missile defence systems on commercial planes in wake of MH17 tragedy

A Buk M2 missile system in 2010.
A Buk M2 missile system in 2010. Photo: AP

A United States senator says he will petition the country's Federal Aviation Administration to install missile defence systems on commercial airliners in the wake of the shooting down of a Malaysia Airlines plane in Ukraine.

Senator Mark Kirk, a Republican from the state of Illinois, told the Washington Post commercial aircraft needed to be able to defend themselves. 

In an unstable world, sophisticated weapons once only wielded by nation-states are increasingly falling into the hands of extremists, rebels and other non-state actors

“I think they should actively look into mounting active defences on civil aircraft that are carrying hundreds of people,” Kirk told the Post.

Republican Senator Mark Kirk says commercial airlines need to carry defence systems.
Republican Senator Mark Kirk says commercial airlines need to carry defence systems.  

“It’s not too technically difficult to add a radar warning system on an aircraft, where a pilot in command could dispense chaff to defeat a radar-guided missile.”

Overnight, a US official in Washington said a preliminary US intelligence assessment indicated that the Malaysia Airlines plane that crashed in eastern Ukraine was shot down by an anti-aircraft missile fired by pro-Russian separatists.

The attack was likely carried out using an SA-11 surface-to-air missile system, or a similar class of weapon, according to the assessment, the official said. The SA-11 is an early version of the Buk anti-aircraft system that has been identified by Ukrainian authorities as the weapon used to bring down the airliner.

Senator Kirk, a former Navy intelligence officer, said the Buk missile system believed used in the attack on MH17 was a complicated piece of equipment. 

"I would think a bunch of Ukranian hillbillies would not have an ability to operate it efficiently,” he said. “You would have to have the back up of the active duty Russian military to properly deploy and use the Buk.”

James Kitfield, a long-term US defence journalist, wrote in an opinion piece in the Post that missiles were now so easy to come by it was a miracle more planes hadn't been shot down. 

"In an unstable world, sophisticated weapons once only wielded by nation-states are increasingly falling into the hands of extremists, rebels and other non-state actors," Kitfield wrote.

"Just this week, Hamas has fired long-range missiles from Gaza into Israel cities, well-armed Islamic extremists in northern Iraq are pushing back the army, and a Malaysia Airlines passenger jet was shot down over Ukraine.

"In fact, commercial airliners - long targeted by militants - may be the most vulnerable marks out there. As these arms proliferate, it's fortunate that more of them haven't been shot down."

Senator Kirk expressed concerns that the proliferation of surface-to-air missiles in the Middle East was going to make it more likely that such deadly equipment fell into terrorists' hands. 

“At this point we can’t just hide. We should think about how to defeat this threat technically,” he told the Post. 

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