Photos Support Flight MH17 Being 'Downed by Supersonic Missile'

Noah Sneider/The New York Times/Redux

Photos from the devastated scene of the Malaysia Airlines MH17 crash strongly suggest the plane was shot down by a surface-to-air missile, according to aviation and weapons experts. In support of that verdict, the New York Times has published a selection of photos of the wreckage taken by reporters on the ground.

The pieces of wreckage in question were found several miles away from where the bulk of the plane and its contents fell. An analysis for the Times by IHS Jane's, a defense consultancy, said the photos suggest "that the destruction of the aircraft was caused by a supersonic missile that apparently exploded near the jet as it flew 33,000 feet above the ground."

While it's still impossible to tell the exact make and model of the missile used, the pock-marked surface of the plane debris, blistered paint and the pattern of small indentations that look like not unlike bullet holes are consistent with damage caused by surface-to-air missiles like the Russian built SA-11, say ballistics specialists. The new evidence casts doubt on Russia's claims that Ukrainian forces shot the plane down.

This photo tweeted by military analyst Justin Bronk gives another look at the surface damage.

#MH17 fuselage from port side cockpit section showing heavy shrapnel damage consistent with SA-11 hit, credit @FT

— Justin Bronk (@Justin_Br0nk) July 21, 2014

"The perforation holes that are visible indicate that they are consistent with a foreign object entering from the exterior of the aircraft to the interior of the aircraft, given the contour of the aluminum around a majority of the perforations as well as the visible blistering of the paint around some of the holes themselves," Reed Foster, an analyst at IHS Jane's, wrote in an assessment provided to the Times.

SA-11 missiles, like the ones believed to have shot down MH17, cause the plane's cabin to depressurize by exploding close to the aircraft, instead of directly hitting the plane, and dousing it in hot shrapnel. This explains the small holes visible in the pictures. The larger, gaping holes are caused by the depressurization that rips the plane apart thousands of feet in the air.

According to the Times, each of the warheads on an SA-11 is packed with 46 pounds of intense explosive. The weapon, originally designed in the former Soviet Union, was intended to target fast-moving military aircraft.

A State Department report published on the website of the United States embassy to Ukraine outlines the evidence that has led American officials to believe Russian-backed separatists are behind the strike, including the assertion that the plane was "likely downed by a SA-11 surface-to-air missile from separatist-controlled territory in eastern Ukraine."

"This very much looks like damage from a fragmentation warhead," Stephan Fruhling, a ballistics specialist and senior lecturer at the Australian National University Strategic Defence Studies Centre, Canberra, told Australia's Fairfax Media. "The fact that it has struck the cockpit rather than an engine also argues for a radar-guided rather than heat-seeking missile," reports the Sydney Morning Herald.

John Blaxland, who is also at the ANU Strategic Defence Studies Center, concurred, telling Fairfax, "Those tiny fragmentations looks just like the surface-to-air SA-11 to me."