The Gadfly: A Powerful Weapon in the Wrong Hands

The Gadfly in action

July 17 Main Image

The Soviet-era BUK-M1 Surface to Air Missle (SAM) system (known by its NATO reporting name ‘Gadfly’) was allegedly used to shoot down Malaysia Airlines flight 17 over Ukraine. According to the technical specs on the Russian-built system, the radar-guided missiles have up to a 90% success rate in shooting down aircraft.

Following today’s horrific news of the downing of MH17, allegedly by a Ukrainian SAM, I thought it might be instructive to examine the kind of equipment supposedly in the hands of rogue separatists. A source within the Ukrainian government claimed that the airliner was shot down using a BUK-M1 missile system. If these allegations are correct, the fact that rogue operatives are in control of such powerful weapons is certainly a cause for concern.

To be completely honest, I have no desire to add to the already astonishing amount of speculation and conspiracy theories circulating in the press and on the internet. Despite the seemingly official confirmation by American authorities that the aircraft was indeed shot down, I am waiting for tangible evidence from professional air crash investigators which will surely come in the days ahead. Nevertheless, the technical specifications of the BUK-M1 ‘Gadfly’ are astonishing, particularly if they have indeed fallen into questionable hands.

The Gadfly was developed by the Soviet Union in the early 1970’s to specifically target tactical aircraft. It consists of a chassis with a launcher capable of carrying up to four 9M38 radar-guided missiles. Each missile is over 5 meters long and weighs an astonishing 685kg. With a radar-guided missile speed of well over 850m/s and a maximum altitude of 22,000m (well over the reported 10,000m of MH17), the Gadfly is capable of inflicting serious damage. Furthermore, military analysts boast that this weapon has up to a 90% ‘kill probability’ against aircraft.

Given the large size and slow maneuverability of a Boeing 777, even if the pilots had been alerted of the incoming threat, it was already too late for them to do anything. With the precision and brutality of the Gadfly, MH17 was doomed the second the missile was fired – if indeed it was. This situation, if true, is extremely worrisome. How is it possible for an international airliner to be shot down by such a weapon without any accountability? Clearly, the people responsible for this tragedy were either not very good at using the weapons, which leads to question why they had it in the first place, or intentionally shot down an airliner, an unlikely scenario given that Malaysia practically no role in the Ukrainian crisis.

I have read some internet speculation that Gadfly weapons were seized by separatists from a Ukrainian military base. The other possibility is that other countries or entities supplied these weapons. Of course, there is still the possibility that this plane was shot down by Ukrainian or Russian forces, or even some other separatist group. Regardless, the most troublesome aspect is that weapons such as the Gadfly are freely roaming in war-torn areas (they have allegedly been spotted in Syria as well). The fact that close to 300 innocent civilians were killed because of rogue weaponry of this caliber is frankly shocking and poses a threat to everyone – regardless of their position on the conflict in Ukraine.
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