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Analysis: Likely no accident that Malaysia Airlines flight was shot down

Charles Duelfer is an Iraq expert who spent more than 25 years in the national security agencies of the U.S. government. He studied the Korean Airlines flight 007 that was shot down in 1983 by a Soviet interceptor in the Sea of Japan.

Duelfer has recently headed a small entrepreneurial space launch company. He is currently Chairman of Omnis, Inc.

We spoke to him this afternoon. His answers have been lightly edited for clarity. Watch for more from him on tonight’s PBS NewsHour.

How advanced is the technology needed to shoot down a Boeing 777 at 33,000 feet?

Well to do that takes a very serious and concerted effort. You have to be able to track the flight and the missile and track the flight for a few hours. It’s got to be a Buk missile system — this is a big air defense missile that can reach up to that level. That doesn’t suggest some random incursion. This type of weaponry is in a completely different class from more common missiles known as stingers or SA-16s — those only go up to 3-4,000 or maybe 5,000 feet. This is a big deal to do this. I haven’t seen that it was confirmed that it was shot down — the evidence points towards that, but it’s not confirmed. If it is confirmed that it was shot down then you have a lot of subsequent questions and this is when you would get into air defense in more detail. It would just seem impossible for someone to have just done a horrendously sloppy job at their work so instead you’re looking at someone who made a horrendous decision to do this. (Editor’s note: the U.S. confirmed after this interview took place that the plane was shot down.)

Who would have had access to this kind of defense system in the region?

Well, Ukraine and Russia would have those types of systems. Ukraine air defense from when they were a base for the Soviet Union would have that capability. These things will and should be knowable unlike the last Malaysian crash. These are heavily traveled air corridors. There are loads of NATO signal collectors in the region so there is going to be a lot of evidence about what happened. You will find out where and how this happened. How long that information takes is a question and who was in the decision chain that made it happen with be tough to figure out as well. If this plane was shot down it’s a huge deal.

Could Russia have given it to the rebels in Ukraine?

It wouldn’t make sense for them to do that. The Russian government could deny any responsibility by saying renegade commanders took over the equipment or they could say they were confused on who was operating and in control of the Ukrainian air defense equipment. But it wouldn’t make sense for them to send that to the pro-separatists.

It’s hard to work out how this would give either side an advantage. In the case of KAL007 in 1983, the Soviets thought they were shooting down a spy plane which looked a little like a 747.

How likely/possible is it that this was a mistake? Would it have been undeniable that this was a passenger plane or could it have been mistaken for a cargo flight?

It’s hard to imagine how this would have been a mistake. This is a standard flight route — if it deviated from the route that would bring up other questions, but from what I’ve seen it was on the right flight path. Though even if they were off the commercial route, the Russians are not going to be shooting an airliner. This is a different world now; it’s not the Cold War any more. They would be able to tell if it was a cargo flight. And the other thing is it was at full altitude, this was not a flight about to land or posing some kind of threat.

It’s really hard to figure out in whose interest this would be. It makes you think someone screwed up very badly.

I mean, this is a big air defense act, presumably whatever air defense system is responsible would also have the ability to watch flights in their air space. These commercial flights are so well tracked you know where they are at all times. You have these beacons that send out squawks with the identity of the plane and it would say that it’s a commercial air craft. These radars — and even the Russians have them — have an immediate identification system that will say friend or foe for each flight. They would have known it was a friendly flight.

How might this affect the ongoing Ukraine-Crimea-Russia conflict?

Well, you know, yesterday the president just announced more sanctions, and Russia said this is going to hurt you as well as us, this taking place in that context, well I’d be very cautious about drawing any links or causality, it’s already tense environment people are not going to be giving the other side the benefit of the doubt which will make an already tense situation worse.

There will obviously be statements out of the Pentagon and the White House, but watch for how immediately the Russians react and how forth coming they are — that will be a good tip off. If they don’t react for a while something is up, that would be my interpretation. If they say they are fully cooperative and will launch an active, immediate investigation into this accident and help Malaysians then that would be something else entirely. Looking around I have not seen them say much yet.