Ukraine The SA11 Surface To Air Missile System

9K37 BUK-M1 SA-11 Gadfly technical data sheet specifications information description pictures photos images identification intelligence Russia Russian army ground-to-air missile air defense armoured vehicle

I want to take the time to add some content for readers on the SA11 Surface to Air Missile System you’ve all been hearing about. Its proper name is the BUK and it was developed in Soviet Russia.

The system is a tracked missile battery designed to engage and defeat airborne threats. By itself, it has a detection range of about 40km. That means with its radar up and running, it has the capability of detecting a target up to 40 kilometers away. The radar is a mono-pulse system using a conical scan with a relatively narrow beam width. This is important to know because it is incapable of searching 360 degrees. The system requires a crew of 3 one to operate the radar and guidance and the other 2 to operate electrical and missile systems. The BUK can be outfitted with 1 through 4 surface to air missiles. So, don’t draw any conclusions when seeing a BUK with only 2 missiles installed. The SA11 is not new nor is it a highly sophisticated system. It has been around since 1985. However, it’s guidance, speed and altitude makes it a serious threat. I takes 5 minutes for the crew to setup and use the SA11 and 5 minutes to take it down and start to move it.

The missiles travel at 850 m/s (1900 mph) and are capable of engaging targets up to 22,000 (72,178) meters and a maximum range of 35km. The missiles are detonated by direct impact or proximity.

In the real world, successful application of the SA11 requires that they operate with a secondary radar vehicle, one equipped with a medium to long range radar that can detect a target beyond 40km and determine heading, CPA (closets point of approach) and other parameters needed to develop a fire control solution. Once a threat assessment is made, the incoming target is handed over to the SA11 which then locks on target with its fire control radar. When the missile is fired, it flies to its target by riding the radar beam from the vehicle. The 9M38M1 missile, I believe, is also equipped with its own radar that controls final phase targeting.

The Dynamics of the MH17 shoot down are interesting. So I put together a slide to illustrate the point.


The figure basically shows that at its speed and altitude MH17 would have been in range of the SA11 site for 5 minutes and 11 seconds.

Added: 21 July 2014

I want to add a small amount of detail regarding the radar used on the BUK M1 (SA11). In search mode it pulses as it scans a sector. This is the equivalent to pulsing a laser pointer while moving it across a wall. When it detects a target it goes into continuous wave or CW, so it stops pulsing and on solid. The radar can scan a sector that is 120 degrees wide and to 6 to 7 degrees high, so let’s call it 6.5 degrees, in 4 seconds.

Radar Characteristics

So let’s assume that Ivan the Separatist had his SA11 site up an running, which is not generally done. Radars are allowed to transmit into dummy loads (i.e standby) or in the off position to avoid having to replace a Klystron tubes or being detected(1). Ivan would then need to know in what direction the airplane was traveling so that he can orient his fire control radar on the target. Well, maybe Ivan has good eyes and saw it coming at 33,000 feet in heavy weather conditions with overcast (2). Highly unlikely. The more probable scenario is that Ivan had knowledge of an inbound aircraft which gives him and his crew time to bring the missiles and radars online.

So what are the likely scenarios:

  1. Ivan the Separatist got a hand off from a tracking radar, maybe from the Russian side of the border, or just a lucky shot.
  2. It wasn’t Ivan the Separatist. It was the Ukrainian Military who tracked the flight and handed it off to one of its own SA11 sites not realizing that it was a commercial flight – the fact that in prior weeks they lost 2 military aircraft, their judgment or command and control may have been impaired.
    1. Given the overt effort on the part of the Ukrainian government to release COMINT intercepts to CNN and the media, I’m incline to think the truth may be closer to scenario number 2.  I’m still struggling with the idea of making a public disclosure that you are monitoring communications between Separatist and Russian Intelligence.

What do you think?


(1) One of the ways SA11 sites are taken out is using munitions that lock on to the SA11 launchers’ radar beam.

(2)  Or they had their own version of Tatto (Fantasy Island) yelling “da plane, da plane.”

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12 Responses to Ukraine The SA11 Surface To Air Missile System

  1. Jan says:

    very nice work. thank you.


  2. Bruce says:

    I am inclined to believe the first scenario, esp with evidence of SA-11 vehicle returning to Russia.
    Not to difficult to know commercial flight path and aircraft position based upon departure time.


    • Bruce, that’s a good point but as I recall, they were rerouted in flight due to weather. ATC put them on a southern leg.
      What made option 2 viable for me is the fact that most senior personnel in the Ukrainian Army came up through the Russian structure and their intelligence heavily influenced by former KGB. My theory is that the military side of the house was sufficiently shamed by the three aircraft lost to MPADS, SA6s, that they blew it. I think the military side of the Ukrainian house was not tightly coupled to the civilian side. They picked up a unidentified contact on search radar, maybe didn’t even squawk for an ident or made they did an didn’t get anything back. They handed the target over to an SA11 battery who fired on MH17. There are a several things that had an odor to them.
      First, they began disclosing all these COMINT intercepts. Some of those revealed the fact that Separatists were in the process of receiving BUK M1s yet no alarms were sounded and no attempts were made to neutralize those batteries by the Ukrainian military. Secondly, I don’t know of very many intelligence officers that would reveal they had successful COMINT intercepts between Separatists and Russian handlers. Why the hell would you do that and compromise your collection channels? Let alone, turn that stuff over to CNN et al.
      It all seems too convenient too timely and too overdun.
      Remember the intercepts played on the news with Separatist talking about the plane that was shot down, where are the pilots, etc. I don’t doubt the conversation existed but was it between Ukrainian military or Separatists. Was that validated?
      I would completely discard the prospect that Russian personnel shot MH17 down with knowledge and intent. I’ve had some communications experience in the military and I have yet to encounter field action taken without authorization from above. It was pretty disciplined. So, I think the Ukranians wanted to get points up on the board and blew it, big time. In keeping with Cold War strategy, never let a tragedy go to waste.
      Thanks for posting, I enjoyed your comments. Take care.


      • Jan says:

        The “evidence” pertaining a BUK-1 TELAR vehicle returning to the Russian border has now been debunked. The video, released by the government in Kiev, showed a BUK-1 system with one rocket missing. But on Kiev controlled territory.
        So that’s the basis of State Secretary Kerry’s accusation. It’s bunk.


      • Jan, that’s an interesting piece of news. Who made that discovery?


  3. Theoferrum says:

    I am inclined to believe the second scenario but that it was shot down by a heat seeker from a jet, not a ground based missile system.


  4. Omar says:

    i assume bad guys communicating with cell phones not encrypted satellite phones…i assume mh17 heading southeast at 30000 ft would indicate non-military…i heard that ukraine has no fly zone below 30000 ft…i assume ukraine military flying well below 30000 ft to avoid sa11’s…i assume ukraine military monitoring civilian air traffic…i assume the separatist do not have aircraft so why move ukraine sa11’s to that area…since use of anti-aircraft weapons are recent development then i assume weapons supplied to separatist by russians…i assume overly eager separatist push button to soon or military aircraft avoided sa11 and it relocked on mh17


    • Omar, all good thoughts but let’s look at a couple of things and I’ll address your comments one by one.

      1. Anything running on a 3G or 4G mobile network is encrypted there are no open conversations. So an intercept is not done by monitoring the airwaves it involves the mobile cell or carrier’s point of presence so they would also need to know EIN numbers etc. When an intercept is done, the last thing you want to do is let the parties involved know because it destroys the collections process. In fact, the only purpose it serves is propaganda, especially when it is placed in the hands of the news media. So, yes it is possible that the conversations released to the news media is authentic but the parties involved could be Ukrainian regulars. The conversation is unaltered, but the parties need to be verified.
      If these intercepts were valid then the Ukranians had prior knowledge that Separatists had BUK M1 missile batteries. No attempt was made to takes those out by the Ukrainian Air Force or disclose their presence prior to the MH17 shootdown.
      2. MH17 heading and flight level. The BUK M1 (SA11) can strike at a target form just a few thousand feet up to 75,000 feet. Prior to reports the Separatists had BUK M1 launchers, the rebels were using SA6 shouldered fired weapons with a range of about 15,000 feet so military aircraft would have been operating well above that. The route or heading is irrelevant. The Boeing 777 cruises at an indicated airspeed of about 530 knots which is consistent with military transports, reconnaissance aircraft and a variety of other aviation assets. What delineates a military aircraft is IFF when interrogated, it responds with a certain code. If there is no response or the wrong response the command and control systems assume it is an enemy or unauthorized aircraft. There is an important question that should be asked here and that is did the Ukrainian civil aviation authorities inform the Ukrainian military of MH17 and provide them with position, altitude and heading?
      3. Flying below 30000 feet to avoid SA11. The last thing you want to do with an SA11 is fly low. You want to be as high as you can so when you detect the targeting radar you can deploy countermeasures or take evasive actions. Altitude translates to time.
      4. The Separatists don’t have aircraft so why move SA11’s to area. The battlefield is like a dome. Air assets are used to attack ground targets and provide an umbrella of protection for ground troops. The Ukrainian military was in control of Donetsk Airport so an SA11 could be used to deny the Ukrainian military from using it. Although, there’s an interesting point to make. The SA11 sighting was 70km away from Donetsk Airport and therefore out of range. The SA11 has a maximum detection range of 40km and max altitude of 70K to 72K feet.
      5. Anti-aircraft weapons are recent development. The SA11 was developed and deployed in 1985 so it has been in Ukraine and Russia for quite a few years. Definitely not new but 70% to 80% effective.
      6. i assume overly eager separatist push button to soon or military aircraft avoided sa11 and it relocked on mh17. Very unlikely. The SA11’s radar systems have the ability to independently guide up to 3 missiles concurrently and they also have the resolution to detect individual targets that are very close to each other, such as planes flying in formation.

      To me it looks like the Ukrainians, after loosing three aircraft prior to MH17, picked up MH17 and possibly had no handoff or information from its civil aviation agencies, assumed they had a military contact. IFF interrogation failed so they handed it over to an BUK launcher and fired on MH17 bringing it down.
      Is there a possibility that Separatists shot it down, absolutely but there are a lot of questions that need to be answered and nobody in the news media is asking them.
      You had some great comments. Thanks for posting and visit the site again. Be good and be safe!


  5. pot says:

    what is the true reason why the MH17 was crashed? please tell me as soon as possible..
    is it in the use of BUK system? or heat by a jet? :/ (confused)


    • The forensic evidence suggests that MH17 was brought down by an SA11 missile. Who’s SA11 is what is not known and no one will come forward with that information willingly. It was gross stupidity on the part of air traffic control and Malaysian Airlines to allow MH17 to fly over a war zone; especially in light of the fact that military aircraft have been conducting operations in the area as have been shot down.


  6. Bobls says:

    What about scenario #3 where Putin gives one of his AA batteries vacation time and they decide to drive into Ukraine with their missile system.


    • Anything is possible but the SA11s have been around since Christ was a corporal and the Ukraine had them as part of the Western CCCP Army. It’s highly unlikely that a single Buke launcher operating without its long range radar vehicle would have detected MH17. Typical Russian operating scenario is use a long range mobile radar which then handsoff target information to one of 3 or 4 Buke batteries. Final target acquisition and fire control is handled by the battery’s radar and crew. Their operating range is 40 kilometers or less.
      One real possibility is that Russian long range radar vehicle operating on the Russian side detected MH17 and called it in to the seperatists as a heads up and the seperatists got trigger happy. Any attempt to imterogate MH17’s transponder for IFF purposes would have failed.
      The Ukranians failed to close the airspace and the Malaysian didn’t have the common sense to fly around Easter Ukraine. Tough situation!


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